Minnesota suspends statewide student testing amid technical woes

Updated 6 p.m. | Posted 5:15 p.m.

Frustrated by ongoing technical problems with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, state education officials Tuesday said they were temporarily suspending the exams until all the glitches are fixed.

Students across the state faced delays up to an hour Tuesday morning when they tried to take their MCAs. More problems popped up in the afternoon. A similar problem last week was caused by a server malfunction at Pearson, the state's testing contractor.

"As the number of students testing neared its peak today, Pearson has identified some technical problems with their system and are currently working to resolve them," the Education Department said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon.

The technical problems have not affected the 400,000 tests that have already been completed, the department added.

"We hold our students to high standards and we expect no less of Pearson," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. "Students deserve a worry-free testing experience without interruptions."

The problems, however, have triggered widespread unhappiness among local school district officials who have barely two weeks left before the student testing window closes for the school year.

Local testing directors who spoke to MPR News prior to the department's decision were completely frustrated by the technical woes this testing season.

"We're wasting time. We're wasting students' time. We're wasting teachers' time," said Kevin Ward at Avalon School in St. Paul.

"This is what, the third or fourth week of testing? The bugs should have been worked out by now," added Heidi E. Anderson at Augsburg Fairview Academy, a Minneapolis charter school.

In the Bloomington public schools, test coordinator Dave Heistad had already cancelled testing for the day before state officials did the same statewide.

Heistad said he wants to hear that the bugs have been fixed before scheduling more assessments.

"If this type of delay continues, the state might have to extend their testing window," he said.

MCA testing is set to close on May 8.

The Education Department hasn't decided yet on whether to extend that deadline, said department spokesman Josh Collins.

"Certainly that's something that we're going to have to look at, depending on how long we have to suspend this testing," he said.

This is the first year of a three-year, $33.8 million contract with the state for Pearson.

Last year, the state parted ways with testing company American Institutes of Research for computer problems that led to major testing delays in 2013.

"We want the kids to be able to walk into that lab, we want them to be able to sit down, focus on what needs to be done, take their test, submit their answers and move on and be proud of the work that they've done," said Wade Werner, technology coordinator and elementary student dean in the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop district.

The kids, he added, should "not have to worry about any kind of poor connections or hardware issues. That should not be a concern."

Correction (May 13, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the dollar amount of the Pearson contract.

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