Austin suspends MCA tests after web woes

Published 7:16 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Schools across the state hit the brakes on a series of proficiency tests after continued problems with an online testing system.

Austin Public Schools followed the Minnesota Department of Education’s lead in suspending the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments after students attempting to take the mandatory proficiency tests online couldn’t log in or had tests slow to a crawl Tuesday morning for the third time in two weeks.

“While Austin Public Schools is committed to providing our students with the best possible testing environment, we are suspending state MCA testing until the statewide online issues have been resolved,” Austin Superintendent David Krenz wrote in a letter to parents.

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Districts across the state reported problems with test provider Pearson’s online administration system starting about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. A state education official said Pearson’s system was “fully operational” by 11:15 a.m.

The morning problems forced some schools to delay or reschedule the testing of students. For example, in Farmington, many students were unable to log into the testing system and those who were already taking assessments experienced a slowdown.

“We did have a couple of buildings manage to continue testing at a frustrating slow pace, but most cancelled their morning session,” said Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen.

In Austin, Krenz said none of the tests went down, but students noticed the effects of the slowed system.

“There were slow days but we were still able to be testing,” Krenz said.

Educators worry unreliable online tests will frustrate students and drive down their performance, and Krenz agreed technical difficulties during tests can cause issues for students.

“Anytime you raise somebody’s anxiety during a test I think you’re causing unneeded stress,” Krenz said. “There’s enough as it is with these types of tests let alone to have that happen.”

Students, teachers and administrators experienced difficulties for part of the day April 14 and 15. Similar issues appear to have affected test-taking in other states that contract with Pearson for online proficiency tests.

A Pearson representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Minnesota has a $38 million contract with Pearson to provide the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, in reading, math and science. Federal law requires students take proficiency tests in third through eighth grade and once in high school and a 2013 Minnesota bill required the tests be online by this spring.

Two Pearson systems are at the heart of Minnesota’s online test administration. Pearson Access is used by teachers and administrators to manage student test-taking and TestNav is used by students to take assessments.

A Pearson website that updates school officials on the status of those two systems said Tuesday morning both were operating in a “degraded way” in Minnesota and other states. Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia use online testing systems from Pearson similar to what Minnesota uses.

“Primary symptoms of this condition include user difficulty logging in, slow test item download, slow test submissions and a warning screen to notify their teacher or test proctor,” the website said. “While such conditions are frustrating, online testing may continue at this time.”

It is unclear how many Minnesota students were affected by the problems. Keith Hovis, a state Department of Education spokesman, said between 17,000 and 19,000 students were taking tests online Tuesday.

Pearson was still investigating what caused the testing slowdown, Hovis said. Fewer districts were reporting problems by mid day Tuesday.

Hovis added that state leaders believed districts would have time to assess all students. The state department of education has no plans to expand the MCA testing window, which runs until early May.

It’s unclear when the tests would be back up again. Krenz and the district are waiting to hear back from the Department of Education on when to resume testing, but it’s not a matter of simply rescheduling, as Krenz said many things have to be arranged for testing days.

“There’s a lot of time and effort put into creating special schedules for these tests,” Krenz said.

Last Tuesday, a server crash caused a similar problem with the Pearson Access system used to manage test administration. Some schools also experienced slowness with the system last Wednesday.

But state education officials say the issues with Pearson’s system are not as bad as 2013 when a computer crash derailed tests across the state and the MCA testing window had to be extended.

The 2013 crash happened when Minnesota used the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, as an online testing vendor. Problems with those online tests contributed to AIR and Minnesota no longer working together.

Austin Daily Herald and the Associated Press