Education commissioner should require penalty for MCA disruptions

By DON HEINZMAN
ECM PUBLISHERS

Taking the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in reading, math and science last spring was important for thousands of Minnesota high school students. Passing the tests with good scores enables them to demonstrate their knowledge and graduate high school. The scores also are used to measure school performance and evaluate curriculum and teachers.
Most students take these tests online. The testing system last spring was run by testing company Pearson, which is under contract with the Minnesota Department of Education. The company has a two-year $33.8 million contract, ending in 2016.
Last spring, all went well for the first 400,000 tests until late April when the program sputtered, and there was widespread disruption of the testing of students. Some couldn’t log into the system, the testing quit entirely half way through for some, and tests had to be rescheduled.
It got so bad that Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius suspended the testing for April 22 after three days of school districts and charter schools reporting issues with the Pearson server. Josh Collins, spokesperson for MDE, said the first two days involved technical problems with a server. The third day, testing was disrupted due to an online distributed denial of service attack on the system to disrupt the testing process, Pearson said. Testing resumed April 23, and eventually the remaining 600,000 tests were completed.
On May 13, MDE suspended the MCA science testing for May 14 after Pearson reported another outside cyber attack. Testing resumed May 15.
Some Minnesota teachers want the MCA scores tossed out, contending the repeated problems made the test scores unreliable. Other critics said Pearson should be fined heavily for the disruption.
Laura Howe, vice president of media and communication for Pearson, described the intermittent disruptions in Minnesota from a distributed denial of service attack as a “malicious, third-party attack and a deliberate attempt to overload and slow down system traffic.”
She said: “Our goal is to minimize disruptions for students, teachers and administrators. We closely monitored the activity on our systems, while the attacks were ongoing and had teams on standby-available around the clock to respond.”
Many school districts and charter schools reported significant disruption for their students. The problem was not just the impact on student test scores; it was a major disruption of district and charter schools.
Lisa Snyder, Lakeville superintendent, summed up the comments of other superintendents: “The technical difficulties presented by Pearson resulted in some students not being able to log into their tests, slow testing, freezing and an inability to pause or save responses for those that were logged in. Further, the inability to test has resulted in an additional loss of valuable instructional time with our students.”
On the other hand, Jaclyn Swords, Eden Prairie district director of communications and community relations, said they have planned well and are prepared both technically and administratively to deliver MCA online exams. She said they followed their protocols and successfully rescheduled student assessments.
This month Commissioner Cassellius must decide how much of a penalty Pearson should pay for the testing difficulties. Pearson bills the school district monthly and the contract has provisions for failure to live up to the testing standards.
So far state officials are not taking legal action, although they are consulting with the attorney general’s office to determine the options, Collins said.
The commissioner has hired a consultant to help determine the testing damage. She will examine the impact on the test results, system reports, calls and comments from the schools.
Howe said Pearson could not comment on the negotiations except to say they are working to strengthen their defenses to fend off similar attacks in the future. She said, ”We understand the frustration these disruptions caused to students and we apologize for the inconvenience they caused.”
Mindful that Pearson has a two-year contract and will be conducting the MCA testing next spring, Cassellius is also facing a legislative cut of $20 million for testing over this year and next.
One option for Cassellius would be to discontinue with Pearson, but that’s unlikely because putting another whole testing system in place in that timeframe would be difficult.
So the next option is to negotiate with Pearson to pay a penalty to the MDE. That process is underway and the commissioner is expected to make her decision this month.
There should be some consequences for Pearson. After all, Pearson has been doing this for years and they should be expected to have adequate defenses and systems to prevent this disruption from happening again.
“We hold our students to high standards and we expect no less of Pearson,” said Cassellius. “Students deserve a worry-free testing experience without interruptions.”

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers Inc. Reactions to this column — and to any commentary on these pages – are always welcome. Send to: [email protected]