Pearson should pay for MCA testing problems / Joe Nathan’s Columns

Joe Nathan

Testing and, more broadly, learning have been disrupted in the past two weeks for thousands of Minnesota students.

The Minnesota Department of Education says equipment failure and outside computer attacks on Pearson, the company hired to run our statewide tests, caused the problems. The problems became so bad that on April 21, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius suspended testing for April 22.

Josh Collins, MDE director of communications, told me over the phone, “We will not resume testing until all technical problems with the testing system are resolved.” In the late afternoon April 22, MDE announced the testing would resume the next day. The announcement said Pearson had taken corrective actions and Pearson representatives assured MDE they are “confident that any similar service interruptions will be avoided for the remainder of the MCA testing window.” MDE said it would extend the time allowed for MCA testing by two days.

That’s fine. But Pearson should pay for its poor performance.

Milaca Superintendent Jerry Hansen’s experience was repeated by many school leaders: “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 (to highlight three examples).”

Here’s what five other educators said:

–Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, wrote: “Twice in the past week we experienced significant disruptions with MCA testing. Students (at all levels who were testing) already logged into the system were generally able to complete their tests, but schools were not able to get new sessions started. Because staff and students were uncertain as to when testing would resume they needed to wait a considerable time before we knew to cancel the morning’s testing.”

–Terry Moffatt, academic director of DaVinci Academy in Blaine, wrote: “While the department says the technical issues do not adversely affect testing, we disagree because we work very had to create the best possible testing environment and those environments have been disrupted to the detriment of students. When students have to stop in the middle of the test because it has shut down and wait to be restarted, it is frustrating, which obviously affects the testing environment.”

–Cory Klabunde, director of PACT Charter in Ramsey, wrote: “At PACT Charter School, we did not have any issues with our MCA testing. I am frustrated that we have to readjust our testing calendar because a few schools had issues with connection to Pearson.”

–Dennis Peterson, Minnetonka Schools superintendent, wrote: “We had many serious problems two years ago that affected our test scores, so last year we went back to using the paper version. It has been pretty good this year until today. MDE needs to get this all figured out before we have students being frustrated by not being able to show what they know.”

–Tom Kearney, director of New Heights School in Stillwater, wrote: “I find it to be inexcusable that we are required to be compliant with a testing system that is not authentic or reliable. … The commissioner did the right thing by halting testing today (April 22). It may look political, but it was in the best interest of the schools and kids.”

Collins reported that on Tuesday, April 21, about 10,000 fewer tests were taken in Minnesota than would be typical. He said that Pearson explained that they had problems all over the country. Pearson reported that beginning Tuesday afternoon, an outside group began sending huge amounts of data into the Pearson system, attempting to disrupt it. This is called “a denial of service” attack. It was successful.

A “denial of service” attack is, according to Collins, different from hacking a computer system. Hacking is something like trying to enter and steal from a home. Denial of service is more like someone hitting you hard, repeatedly trying to knock you to the ground and preventing you from getting up.

Based on reports from more than 30 district and charter schools, I think suspension was a good idea. But Pearson should refund a substantial amount of its $33.8 million contract. They have not designed an efficient, effective testing system.

Problems apparently began Tuesday, April 14. Some schools reported issues signing onto Pearson’s computer system so that students could take the tests. Some schools found their computer screens froze and some students were “dropped” from their online tests.

Collins agreed there were problems last week, but not enough for state action. But things were worse this week. Many educators are angry.

They have every right to be. It takes months to set up testing schedules and to help students develop the skills assessed and a positive mindset about test taking. Some schools’ schedules have been totally disrupted. Unresponsive and slow-moving screens discourage some students.

How will MDE respond to Pearson’s performance problems? Collins replied that the contract includes financial consequences if Pearson does not live up to contract provisions. As of April 22, MDE has not decided whether to hire an outside group to investigate the problems with Pearson or ask for compensation. MDE hired an outside group to investigate another testing company that had problems in 2013. MDE’s contract with the company ended, and when MDE sought proposals from testing companies, the previous company didn’t submit a proposal and Pearson was ultimately selected.

Educators, parents and students should expect testing to be far more efficient. I think Pearson should pay, big time. Most of the money should go to Minnesota’s public schools.

If you have an opinion, you can share it with Commissioner Cassellius. Her email is

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.