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Test, interrupted: Cyber attack disrupts MCAs again

The suspension of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) this week due to issues with the testing system has local educators frustrated. Test provider Pearson experienced a cyber attack Wednesday for the second time this year, as students ...

The suspension of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) this week due to issues with the testing system has local educators frustrated.

Test provider Pearson experienced a cyber attack Wednesday for the second time this year, as students statewide tried to take the science portion of the MCAs.

Pearson told state leaders an outside source was trying to disrupt the testing service system, leading to serious testing delays for students. In response, testing was suspended for the rest of Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday morning, the Minnesota Department of Education provided an update on the situation, and announced testing would resume Friday.

The test suspension has local teachers scrambling to plan and prepare lesson plans for days they were planning on having testing, Brainerd Public Schools Superintendent Klint Willert said.

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"If you're planning and prepared for assessment days and times and all of a sudden that time has shifted on you, it impacts instruction," Willert said. "Teachers need time to prepare lessons."

The impact isn't limited to the testing and academic schedule, though.

"It does impact fundamentally what we do, which is the instruction of children," Willert said.

Willert said he understands the need to have state assessments, but asks why there's a lack of accountability for Pearson when it comes to their testing system.

"The state of Minnesota is spending literally millions of dollars in this contract with Pearson," Willert said. "And every school district across the state of Minnesota is effectively interrupting their instructional practice and process."

When it comes to evaluating the MCA results in the coming fall, it'll be hard to give much weight to this year's scores. The district will be able to appeal individual students' scores in the fall, Willert said, but the issues still raise questions about the results on a larger scale.

"It raises some serious questions about the reliability of the data that we receive," Willert said. "Particularly given how we haven't had a very reliable instrument going through this entire assessment season."

These issues should start a discussion about what tools and instruments should be used for evaluating students, Willert said. The tools need to be reliable in how they function and the results need to be reliable as well.

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"When the function isn't reliable, it certainly brings to question the reliability of the results," Willert said.

Students taking the MCAs using the online system have repeatedly run into issues where they start the test, and after answering a few questions, are booted from the system and forced to start over, Willert said. When the district asked for more time for these students to take the test because of the issue, the state denied the request and instead said the district could appeal those students' scores in the fall.

The district's educators have fortunately been able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, though, and made necessary accommodations in their classrooms, Willert said.

"They've made some shifts in their plans that they have had," Willert said. "While it's not perfect, it's certainly what our staff have been able to do to keep things as normal as possible for our students."

The academic calendar won't need to be extended because of the testing delays, Willert said, but the disruption to the classroom instruction is the bigger issue.

Willert said he's heard from teachers there is a level of frustration in the classrooms when it comes to the tests.

"You have an expectation that things are going to work," Willert said.

The stakes behind the MCAs amplify the frustrations people are having with the testing system, Willert said.

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"It's a high stakes assessment," Willert said. "So people do get frustrated when the instrument doesn't work the way it's supposed to."

As of Thursday morning, Willert said schools were still expected to complete the science portion of the MCAs by Tuesday, May 19, the original deadline.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said the group supports language approved by the Senate to reduce the damage from the 2015 MCAs, including compensating districts experiencing an interruption of service during the testing period and letting districts have the flexibility to set aside the test scores for use in ratings of teachers and schools.

"The federal government requires educators, students and parents to work all year toward these tests, but that effort has been wasted by technical failures," Specht said in a release. "It's a flawed system, flawed technology and now we're stuck with flawed data."

Education Minnesota is also gathering signatures on a petition calling for Pearson to refund the $12.5 million payment for this year's MCA tests.

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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