ROSEVILLE, Minn. - The Minnesota Department of Education is paying a vendor $61 million to administer crucial student testing online. For the last two weeks, that testing has crashed in hundreds of school districts across the state.
"Last Tuesday, we had reports very early in the morning of issues with students who were trying to take tests online who were really having what we call 'slow load time'," said Charlene Briner, Chief of Staff for the M.D.E. "So, you kind of get the little circle (on the screen) 'we can't move to the next question' or students who were being kicked out of the online test."
Some of those students were at the Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, where Avalon District Assessment Coordinator Kevin Ward found students' testing stranded.
"What happened was, I want to say, maybe 10-15 minutes into the test, all of a sudden, the warning message came up on every screen (in the computer lab) 'you've been logged out of the system'," said Ward. "So, I got on the phone with A.I.R. (American Institutes of Research), they run the testing portal and they said they were working on it. They were trying to figure it out."
That was Tuesday of last week when hundreds of districts were affected, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin, the three biggest in the state. Briner said the problem was a computer server by A.I.R. The district suspended testing across the state while the cause of the problem was being determined. However, on Tuesday of this week, the problem returned for 48 districts.
"We still do not know the source of those issues," said Briner.
Then, on Wednesday, more trouble, but fewer districts affected. Only six districts reported MCA testing troubles. That latest problem was reported to be issues with the programming code that originated with A.I.R. No problems were reported to the Department of Education on Thursday.
Briner pointed out that nearly a million tests are included during the testing window, but only about 5,000 students experienced problems. Thousands of students were able to successfully complete their testing.
The annual MCA tests are used for gauging student and school education efforts as mandated by Federal law. In Minnesota, passing some of the tests is required in order to successfully be awarded a high school diploma. They are considered high-stakes, high anxiety tests for the students.
Briner explained that it is possible that some of the crashed online testing will be invalidated and not counted in overall test results. Ward wonders about the impact on the individual students.
"It is just difficult when you are trying to create the environment and you are trying to help them get ready (for the test) and I am sure nobody wanted it to happen, but I have a feeling that it probably affected how they did," said Ward.
Briner said the Department is considering action against A.I.R. over the problems. The contract with A.I.R. expires in 2014.
"The contract does state that there are financial penalities if there are technology issues that can be attributed to the vendor," said Briner. "We are looking very closely at the contract to see what options we have to make sure that the taxpayers of Minnesota are being well-served by the contracts we enter into."
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