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TMCNet:  Minnesota students taking online MCA tests again experience slowdowns

[April 23, 2013]

Minnesota students taking online MCA tests again experience slowdowns

Apr 24, 2013 (Pioneer Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- School districts across Minnesota continue to have trouble with the new statewide online proficiency testing system.

For the second week in a row, districts reported that students experienced long wait times for test questions to be delivered through the online testing portal provided by the vendor, the American Institutes for Research, or AIR.

The state has a three-year contract with AIR worth $61 million to administer several state tests, including the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, or MCA, which measures whether students are meeting state learning benchmarks. The AIR deal expires in 2014 but can be extended until 2016.

Charlene Briner, chief of staff for the Minnesota Department of Education, said nearly 50 districts had trouble with the MCA testing system Tuesday, April 23. A week earlier, the department suspended MCA testing after AIR had problems with computer servers that delayed or interrupted thousands of students' tests.

It was unclear what caused the slowdown Tuesday, but an AIR representative said it wasn't a problem with the organization's computer system. It was also unknown how many students were affected.

"We are unwilling to speculate," Briner said. "Whether its 8,000 students, 800 students or eight students, this kind of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable." Problems were reported outstate and in the metro area, state education officials said. Districts from Lakeville to White Bear Lake reported difficulties. All four of the state's largest districts -- Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan -- reported problems.

Jon Cohen, head of assessment for AIR, said his organization's computer system was functioning normally Tuesday. He added that about 70,000 students tested successfully throughout the day.

"Today is different than last week," Cohen said. "Last week, we looked at our servers and saw a slowdown. Today, we looked at our servers and firewall and everything is running just fine." Cohen added that slowness could be caused by Internet service issues, and AIR planned to adjust the way test questions were delivered to limit the impact on students. Students typically wait "tenths of a second" for test questions to load, he said.

Students who experience problems will be able to revisit test questions or restart their tests, state education officials said.

The flood of calls from districts experiencing problems for a second time in two weeks has the officials questioning whether online proficiency testing is a good idea. The state has been transitioning from paper and pencil tests to computerized assessments because students and teachers like the immediate feedback they provide.

However, Briner acknowledged that a lack of uniformity in how test questions are being delivered is frustrating for students and troubling for educators.

MCAs make up a large portion of how the state judges school performance. Students prepare for the tests all year and their scores can have wide-ranging impacts.

"As you can imagine, this creates great consternation in this high-stakes testing environment," she said. "We are having serious discussions about it." Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/cmaganPiPress.

___ (c)2013 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Visit the Pioneer Press (St.

Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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