Education Opinion

Pearson Should Pay for Poor Performance

By Joe Nathan — April 28, 2015 6 min read
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Today, Joe Nathan writes about widespread testing problems in Minnesota. Deborah Meier will respond on Thursday.

Because of massive, widespread problems with Minnesota’s testing program, learning has been disrupted in the past two weeks for thousands of Minnesota students. The state’s testing program has failed, repeatedly. Pearson has a two- year contract with the Minnesota Department worth $33.8 million.It’s time for them to pay for their poor performance.

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: “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.

But even after things were “fixed,” districts reported problems. Last Sunday, the state’s second largest daily paper, the St Paul Pioneer Press cited continuing problems.

Pearson should pay for its poor performance. I checked with more than 40 urban, suburban and rural districts and charters throughout the state. More than 90% reported major problems.

Milaca is a small, rural district. 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 several other educators said:

-Jay Haugen, Farmington (suburban) 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 Charter in suburban 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.”

-Dennis Peterson, superintendent in Minnetonka Schools (suburban), 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.”

Datrica Chukwu, Academic Director of Friendship Academy charter in Minneapolis told me: "...students were kicked off of the site and had to login several times and the test administrator couldn’t login to the site. We had to update Java several times because Pearson kept switching to another Java version.”

-Tom Kearney, director of New Heights School in (suburban) 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.”

Lisa Snyder, the Lakeville (suburban) superintendent explained: “The technical difficulties presented by Pearson resulted in some students not being able to log in to their test, 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.”

Stephen Jones, a (rural) superintendent in Little Falls told me: “the events of April 21 are absolutely inexcusable. The stress level in schools surrounding testing for students, staff, and parents is already at an unhealthy level--continual disruptions not only negatively impact the test results themselves but it forces stakeholders to question the wisdom and rationale for MDE again returning to Pearson to manage the testing protocol when the firm was unable to efficiently run it in the past.”

Education Minnesota, Minnesota’s statewide teachers union, has started a “No riches for glitches!” petition campaign urging a return of funds paid to Pearson this year.

Pearson had problems all over the country. Collins told me that Pearson explained last week’s problems as in part due to server issues, in part due to an outside group that 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.

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.

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 ultimately did not continue its contract with that company.

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 mde.commissioner@state.mn.us

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.