Pearson, Minnesota Dept. of Ed. Sort Through Testing Breakdowns

By Sam Atkeson — January 09, 2015 3 min read
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Pearson is working with Minnesota school districts and the state’s department of education to resolve online testing breakdowns that have disrupted trial exams in advance of the spring testing season.

During recent rounds of practice tests, districts across the state reported issues with Pearson’s TestNav website—an online testing portal that will be used to administer the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment in March.

While Minnesota opted in 2013 to adopt the Common Core State Standards in reading only, it is requiring that all districts make the full transition to online testing this year. (The state’s assessment has been developed by Minnesota, which is not a member of either of the country’s two main consortia creating tests aligned to the common core.)

Issues have been reported most often by districts equipped with Apple computers, due to incompatibilities between Pearson’s testing portal and the device’s standard web browser, Safari.

Updated versions of Safari (on OS X 10.7 or higher) will not support the Java and Flash software necessary to run TestNav unless the browser is operated in what is called “unsafe mode.”

Brandon Pinette, the senior public affairs manager at Pearson, told Education Week that the company is working with Apple to resolve the matter.

In the meantime, he said that districts can download a Web browser that is compatible with TestNav, such as Google Chrome, or access the website using Safari’s “unsafe mode.”

Some district leaders have expressed concerns about what the latter recommendation could mean for protecting student data.

“I was very surprised they rolled out a memo that said just turn your security off,” Dave Heistad, the director of assessment, evaluation and research for Bloomington schools, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “That blew me away. I couldn’t believe a multimillion-dollar company would roll something out that wasn’t secure.”

But director of communications for the Minnesota department of education Josh Collins said there is no cause for concern.

“Whenever you hear the word ‘unsafe’, understandably that raises some questions,” Collins said in an interview with Education Week. “We’ve been assured that does not mean there are any actual security issues with regard to student data privacy.”

Previous Issues

Both Minnesota and Pearson, a major, worldwide commercial company headquartered in London and New York, have experienced their share of testing derailments over the years.

The state was awarded an $11 million settlement against Pearson in 2000 after over 45,000 graduation tests were misgraded. A decade later, in 2010, Minnesota dropped the testing vendor following another scoring error that delayed the results of online science tests for 180,000 students.

The problems haven’t been confined to Pearson. In 2013, under a testing contract with the Washington-based vendor the American Institutes of Research, or AIR, Minnesota was forced to extend the testing window after a range of glitches prevented students from completing the MCAs on time.

“Those aren’t the kinds of issues that schools are experiencing now,” Collins said. “This is more of a compatibility issue that Pearson has found a work-around for.”

Districts are implementing Pearson’s “work-around” with varying degrees of success.

Douglas Tomhave, director of technology for the 3,500-student South St. Paul schools, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that his district overcame initial technology setbacks to successfully administer 240 practice tests in November.

But Sharon Borgert, the director of curriculum and assessment at the Eden Valley-Watkins school district in Eden Valley, Minn., said her system has yet to clear a series of tech-related testing woes.

Borgert told Education Week that despite what she believes to be Pearson’s best efforts—including providing on-site assistance to the 5,100-student district—"significant issues” are recurring.

Some students have been unable to access TestNav, while others have been kicked out of the system mid-test.

“Unless I see a significant change,” Borgert said in regard to another round of practice tests the district will conduct next week, “I have some major concerns about how spring testing will go.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.