Minnesota schools hit glitches with online testing
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's $38 million contract with Pearson for online proficiency testing is just a few months old, but it already has technology staff in many schools scrambling to ensure their systems are compatible.
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota’s $38 million contract with Pearson for online proficiency testing is just a few months old, but it already has technology staff in many schools scrambling to ensure their systems are compatible.
During recent practice testing, school officials across the state found the online portal that Pearson uses to administer tests to be outdated. Many were shocked when Pearson suggested schools run computers online in what they consider an “unsecure” mode.
State education leaders say they are working with Pearson to solve any problems ahead of spring testing season.
State law requires third- through 10th-graders to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, in English, math and science online beginning in the spring of 2015.
Student scores on those tests are a big part of how public schools are graded under the state’s Multiple Measurement Rating.
Pearson is one of the U.S.’s largest testing contractors and will be administering online proficiency tests nationwide as other states begin to implement the controversial Common Core curriculum.
Carol Everson, Pearson’s vice president of state services, acknowledges that her company should have been more specific about its system requirements. She said the company already has developed alternatives for schools and is in routine contact with them to solve problems that come up.
“We take testing extremely seriously,” Everson said.
Many schools across Minnesota have labs filled with Apple computers and students with district-issued iPads in their backpacks. Unfortunately, Apple’s popular Safari Web browser and Pearson’s TestNav testing portal don’t play well together.
Pearson’s system relies on versions of Java and Flash software that are no longer supported by Apple’s browser and will work only if security is disabled on students’ computers.
“I was very surprised they rolled out a memo that said just turn your security off,” said Dave Heistad, director of assessment, evaluation and research for Bloomington schools. “That blew me away. I couldn’t believe a multimillion-dollar company would roll something out that wasn’t secure.”
Leonard Jacobs, a local computer security expert and founder of Netsecuris Inc., said both Java and Flash are notorious for their vulnerabilities and need for their code to be updated.
However, Jacobs wasn’t surprised that Pearson’s system relied on older software.
“It seems to be the way of the world,” he said. “It costs money to make changes.”
Apple and other companies are moving away from Java and Flash because of their volatility. A recent Microsoft security report characterized the programs as two of the most vulnerable to hacking attacks.
Everson downplayed any potential security risks and said Pearson is working with Apple to fix the problem. In the meantime, Pearson has made sure TestNav is compatible with other browsers and has a more advanced system that is expected to launch later in 2015.
For large districts such as St. Paul Public Schools, updating or switching to another Web browser was an easy fix.
Idrissa Davis, deputy chief of technical services, said he can quickly deploy new programs and settings to the roughly 2,500 computers the district uses for testing and then lock the computers’ settings.
“The number of devices we have, it makes sense for us to have an automated system,” Davis said.
In a smaller district such as Hopkins, John Wetter, technical services manager, said his staff had to devise a work-around in order for hundreds of district computers to be used for practice testing. Without specially written software, Wetter’s staff would have been forced to update each computer individually.
“They are not keeping up with modern technology, which I admit is a fast pace, but for a technology company, that is par for the course,” Wetter said. “We are, in this case, lucky enough to be a large enough district to have staff in house to keep up with this.”
Despite problems, district across Minnesota have successfully used Pearson’s TestNav system to administer practice tests.
Douglas Tomhave, director of technology for South St. Paul schools, said his district was able to overcome technology hurdles and give 240 eighth-graders practice tests in November. Tomhave sits on the Minnesota Department of Education’s State Assessment Technical Working Group.
Tomhave said the challenges his district faced ranged from problems with Pearson’s test portal to issues with their Internet services provider and the district’s internal system.
“We are looking forward to a future online testing experience that is device agnostic with fewer software interventions,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Minnesota has had trouble with online tests or with testing contractor Pearson.
In 2013, when the American Institutes of Research, or AIR, was the state’s testing vendor, widespread technical problems forced many districts to abandon assessments on at least one day. The troubles led to Brenda Cassellius, education commissioner, expanding the timeframe when students could be assessed.
Educators worried the stalled and slowed tests would frustrate students and possibly lower their scores. A state-commissioned study of the problems found they had negligible impact on how students performed.
Online testing went more smoothly in 2014, but the earlier problems caused a rift between the state Education Department and AIR. Correspondence between the state and AIR were highly critical of how both sides handled the testing contract.
AIR leaders later said those problems led the organization not to bid on Minnesota’s latest testing contract.
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the history of testing problems and the routinely changing assessments mandated by the state have only exacerbated the recent issues with Pearson’s tests.
“It’s not as though we had smooth sailing the last number of years and this is the first challenge,” Amoroso said. “We had challenges on and off for a significant number of years. It wears on people.”
Everson says Pearson’s testing system and its support staff are designed in a way that should help districts avoid the frozen computers or long waits for help they experienced before.
Pearson’s contract allows test administrators to essentially temporarily download assessments to a district’s local network. If tests are delayed, teachers have a quick path to a help desk.
“If they are in a classroom and are testing a student, they can hit a button and go directly to the head of the line,” Everson said.
Minnesota has used Pearson before with varying success.
Past troubles include results from a state science test that were delayed in 2010 because of a scoring error. A decade earlier, a judge awarded Minnesota an $11 million settlement after 45,000 graduation tests were incorrectly graded.
Minnesota isn’t the only state to have trouble testing online.
In the past few years, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and others had glitches and disruptions with various online testing vendors, including Pearson.
Those problems have convinced critics of high-stakes testing such as Robert Schaeffer, of the group FairTest, that the U.S. is not ready for nationwide online testing.
“The problems Minnesota faces with Pearson’s technical capacity are typical of those confronting many states across the U.S. as they move into mass online testing to administer new Common Core-related assessments,” Schaeffer said. “It is not just a Pearson problem. Put simply, the technology is not ready for prime time.”
Schaeffer says a national Gallup poll of teachers from last summer shows a majority don’t feel their students or schools are ready for online tests. Just 17 percent of educators polled said their schools were “very well prepared” for online testing, with 46 percent answering their schools were “not well prepared” for Web-based tests.
But Everson says computers are revolutionizing the way students are assessed. Online tests are more advanced, can be personalized and give teachers quick feedback so they can modify their instruction.
“I think the future of testing is online,” she said. “We’ve moved beyond filling in bubbles.”
Skepticism and concern has not deterred educators in Minnesota or other states from embracing the era of digital tests.
Kevin McHenry, Minnesota assistant education commissioner, said state legislation mandating online testing did not leave schools with alternatives.
“The legislation did not allow for a waiver or a contingency plan,” McHenry said. “We want to make this as smooth as possible and we are working with Pearson to minimize any issues that may arise.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.