Opinion: A very modest payback for problems Pearson testing produced

By Joe Nathan
Guest Columnist

“Minnesota nice” and the lovely summer we’re having encourage me to be gracious. But having listened to more than 40 Minnesota district and charter leaders describe massive disruption that Pearson testing produced earlier this year, I’m not feeling very charitable toward the company.

So I’m not excited about the announcement this week that Pearson will reduce its bill by $1 million from its $33.8 million contract and provide an estimated $4.6 million of additional services to Minnesota schools. Details on the settlement are here: http://bit.ly/1E4KwMT.

It’s the start – but only the start – of what I’d call appropriate payback for the widespread problems it created in Minnesota public schools.

And I’m stunned that a company named HumRRO, hired by MDE to check out these problems, reported to MDE: “There is no way to identify students that were impacted by the disruptions that occurred as a result of the service interruptions to PearsonAccess”

Really? All HumRRO had to do was ask some of the several dozen educators I quoted last spring to identify students who could describe testing problems.

For example, Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz explained: “Hopkins Public Schools has experienced multiple disruptions in our MCA testing throughout the week. Our internal technical systems are working well, and our building staff members are well prepared to administer the tests to our students. We remain very concerned and extremely frustrated about the disruption.”

Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, wrote, “Twice in the past week we experienced significant disruptions with MCA testing.”

Terry Moffatt, academic director at DaVinci Academy in Blaine, told me: “We have had numerous issues with testing in the last week, from the administrative site shutting down to students being kicked off the testing site … We work very hard to create the best possible testing environment, and those environments have been disrupted to the detriment of students.”

Milaca Superintendent Jerry Hansen wrote: “The conditions under which the tests were administered were varied and inconsistent from day to day, class to class, and student to student. Some students had to wait 20 to 40 minutes for the system to log them in, other students were dropped from testing when they used the Pearson-supplied calculator (requiring them to start the process over), some were told their data was not uploaded after they completed the exam.”

Duane Berkas, director of teaching and learning, Columbia Heights, reported teachers were “unable to log into the Pearson system in order to start an online testing session or once logged in, the system (became) extremely slow and at times completely unresponsive.” He noted, “In addition, we have at times had students dropped from the Pearson system while testing and unable to log back in to complete the test.”

Apparently HumRRO used about $45,000 of time under an existing state contract. They produced a number of statistical tables – but somehow couldn’t find students?

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius wrote: “The disruptions experienced by students and teachers this spring were simply unacceptable.” I agree. But I think Pearson owes Minnesota much more than it settled for.

Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president, told me via email: “Pearson offered additional services like access to online test prep tools and creating more exams. That’s nice, but one of the things educators are begging for is more time to teach – not more time preparing for high-stakes tests. I think what’s missing in this settlement is the human element. No one asked how these disruptions impacted individual students and teachers, and that’s a problem.”

Specht and I don’t always agree, but I think she nailed it this time. The Pearson-MDE agreement is a modest start toward compensating Minnesota students and educators for massive disruption. I think Pearson got off easy. If things are not much better this coming year, MDE should demand much more in payback.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]