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Howard schools recover from possible cyber attack

Howard County Public School System officials said last week that Internet outages that persisted for nearly a week earlier in the month were caused by a possible cyber attack, and that the school system has contacted the FBI.

Internet outages started occurring the first week in January, according to emails from various schools in the county, and continued until about Monday, Jan. 13.

"Please be aware disrupted service has impacted both email and access to Aspen [the online portal parents use to monitor students' grades]," read one email from Patapsco Middle School. "The issue is countywide, and the technology office is working very hard to restore service to the levels we are accustomed to. In the meantime, please be patient as you may see delays in response to email and posting of grades. If you sent an email, but have not received a response, please send your message again, or call the school to speak with the individual you are trying to reach."

Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said that the system's two servers were down sporadically during that time. Email and the Internet would work for a period of time and "appear fine," she said, and then go out again. The system uses Internet provided by Comcast and Windstream.

"We worked with our providers to figure out what the problem was and manage it," she said. "It seems to be back now. We believe we were under cyber attack, and the investigation is ongoing."

Amani-Dove said the problem has been contained. It affected the administrative and instructional networks that provide Internet in schools and school offices. She said the school system has contacted the FBI regarding the possible attack.

"[The providers] were able to identify what was occurring," she said. "I don't know what specific thing led them to conclude that it was some sort of attack, aside from the fact that everything around us, every other network, was working."

With cyber attacks becoming more prevalent, like the recent Target hack that compromised millions of customers' personal information, Amani-Dove said a possible cyber attack on Howard County schools could be "instructive."

"I think that experiencing a cyber attack is instructive for any organization, because you're able to identify areas where you can improve your infrastructure," Amani-Dove said. "If anything, this experience has helped us look at areas where we can increase our security."

Technology upgrades forecast

The outages came about a month-and-a-half before the school system is set to pilot the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career tests, which will be administered via computer.

The PARCC tests are replacing the Maryland School Assessment, which is in its last year. The PARCC is aligned to the new Common Core State Standards Initiative, which was rolled out with the start of school last fall. Because the Common Core isn't aligned to the MSA, math scores across the state dropped last year as students were learning for one test but taking another. Several organizations and districts have called for an MSA waiver, including Superintendent Renee Foose and the PTA Council of Howard County.

Come spring, students will be taking both the PARCC and MSA. Amani-Dove said that in every school, one or two classes will be randomly selected for the PARCC pilot, which will be administered sometime between March 2-27. While 2014 is the pilot year for PARCC, the test will be fully administered in spring 2015.

In a report to the Maryland legislature Jan. 15, the Maryland State Department of Education said schools across the state would need $100 million in technology upgrades to administer PARCC, with some districts needing millions to improve wireless capabilities, hire more staff and purchase thousands of new computers. Amani-Dove said Howard has been preparing for PARCC for several years, and the system's needs aren't as great.

"We've been working over the past few years to move more devices into the schools and to increase our bandwidth capacity so that we can use more computers for instructional use," she said. "Those same computers can be used for testing. Increasing our technological capacity has been a school system priority over the past few years, so those wheels were already in motion. We're in a good position to administer the PARCC."

Computers that will be used to administer the PARCC test are also used for classroom instruction and administering the Measures of Academic Progress assessment. MAP tests, which are computer-based tests in math and reading, are being given at 19 elementary schools and all middle schools, and will be given in all elementary and middle schools next year.

According to MSDE's report, the school system needs 1,830 more computers and a network capacity test. Amani-Dove said the system will be "in good shape," once more laptops are placed in 24 elementary schools to support online testing. She said the system plans to do that in the coming year, and that for the PARCC pilot in March, the system already has enough computers.

The only school not participating in the PARCC test, Amani-Dove said, is the Cedar Lane School. Cedar Lane provides an alternative academic environment for students ages 3-21 whose needs, according to the school system's website, "are so complex that they require a specialized, comprehensive program in a special school setting. Instruction is provided for students who are developmentally delayed, and may have multiple disabilities as well as behavior challenges both in school and community settings."

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