Minnesota Online Testing Suspended for Second Time


Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) testing was suspended for the second time in recent weeks, putting 30,000 tests on hold.

The Science proficiency MCA, which was administered by Pearson, was temporarily halted by the state Department of Education due to a hacking attempt. In April, MCA testing was disrupted due to connectivity and security concerns.

Minnesota has signed a $38 million, three-year contract with Pearson to administer math, science and reading tests for exams from grade 3 to 8. For Minnesota’s Education Commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, this Pearson deal seems unstable and problematic given the significance of the testing at stake.

According to KARE11.com, Cassellius called for additional assurances from the company that they can efficiently handle Minnesota’s testing needs.

The Pearson system was cyber-attacked, and testing resumed a few days after being suspended by the Department of Education. According to Cassellius, the state has no intention of administering MCAs on paper, as this would be counterintuitive and time-consuming. So far in 2015, Pearson facilitated the administration of more than 400,000 students’ tests in Minnessota.

According to Angela Davis of CBS Minnesota, a hacker disrupted the online MCAs and the annual tests of other states in April.

Students scheduled to take the MCAs tests for math, science and reading had trouble logging in into their accounts. Initially, Pearson identified a server failure and subsequently that the system was overloaded with too much traffic. The system’s increased traffic was caused deliberately from an outsider.

Pearson said the April incident was not a cyber attack, but an attempt to prevent the system from doing its job. The incident frustrated students, educators and the Dept. of Education:

“Testing can already be an anxious time for students,” Josh Collins Dept. of Ed. Spokesperson said. “We know that, so anything that potentially increases that anxiety is concerning to us. That’s part of the reason we decided to suspend testing.”

In contrast to the April 21st issue, this month’s  suspension incident was more sophisticated, according to Pearson. They said in an announcement:

“Pearson has experienced intermittent disruptions today due to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. A DDoS attack is a deliberate attempt by an outside party to overload and slow down system traffic.. . . DDoS attacks are not attempts to access student data, and at no time was student data compromised.“

Cassellius is concerned about Pearson’s capacity to offer a smooth testing service:

“It is simply unacceptable and unfair to subject students and teachers to this kind of uncertainty in a high-stakes testing environment. After the April 21 suspension, Pearson added additional security measures to prevent this type of disruption. Given the need to suspend testing today, I have questions about Pearson’s ability to follow through on their assurances.”

State officials will investigate whether the testing disruption and system compromising affects students’ testing scores. Testing resumed two days after the alleged hacking attempt.