Despite everything seeming to be running smoothly on Tuesday at Pearson, the largest education company in the world, by the following day students across New Jersey were experiencing technical issues when trying to take their PARCC exams due to an error made by a Pearson employee.
Although the company is not releasing many details concerning exactly what happened, only saying that a review is ongoing, a tour taken by NJ Advance Media the day before offers some information pertaining to how the company ensures that online exams continue to work.
One Pearson manager told staff members that moving to online testing has placed the experience of each student "front and center" for the technology staff.
"Every second that student is clicking a button or they are navigating within that browser, that lands with us to make sure they have a good experience," said Craig McNeil, who oversees the reliability of Pearson's online tests. "So it's super important that we deliver tests to students flawlessly."
The company features a command center where about 15 employees constantly monitor data in order to ensure students are able to take their exams without any problems. According to McNeil, it is the most important thing being done at the company each day.
The command center employs 850 individuals in all, performing various duties from creating and scoring exams to offering technical support for the tests and clients.
The front of the center holds eight television monitors that display data concerning different Pearson testing programs. In all, 1.5 million pieces of data are collected by the company every 30 seconds. McNeil said this information is then used to determine whether the online exams are working.
McNeil only laughed when asked if command center employees should be held responsible if the exams were to crash, saying, "We haven't had a lot of really big crises lately."
However, less than 24 hours after the tour ended, a number of schools in New Jersey reported technical problems with the exams, causing thousands of students to be unable to participate. Some schools complained that the operating system was running slowly on Tuesday evening. The company said that in an effort to fix the situation, an employee had attempted to "optimize performance" of Pearson Access Next.
Instead of fixing the situation, the company said the employee had actually introduced an unexpected problem that ended up limiting the program. Despite the server running as expected, teachers across the state were unable to give their students access to the exam.
While Governor Chris Christie's administration has routinely supported PARCC exams in the past over complaints from teachers and parents, it criticized Pearson after the recent issues, with State Education Commissioner David Hespe calling the mistake "totally unacceptable."
Pearson has a four-year contract with the state, which could cost up to $108 million. That contract requires the company to perform a "root cause analysis" in order to determine what caused the issue and how the company responded.
"The (education) department fully intends to hold Pearson accountable once the review is completed," Hespe said.