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July 21, 2019

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Testing firm chief redirects blame for Common Core woes

student taking test on computer

AP Photo

The Common Core education standards call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived last month with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.

The company blamed for standardized-test problems in Nevada this year said it wasn't given enough time to get things right before the federally mandated testing began.

In his first public comments since the controversy, Measured Progress CEO Martin Borg said he understood the frustration of teachers and students in Nevada who tried to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment day after day only to receive error messages.

“It’s certainly understandable, the frustration,” Borg said. “Nevada did everything it could to be ready.”

The technical problems during testing began in mid-April, around the time when students from Clark County started logging on to the company’s servers to take the SBAC test. The large number of students from CCSD exceeded the company’s server capacity, causing errors for students statewide. As a result, CCSD decided to discontinue testing, a move which will starve the state of vital data on student achievement for next year.

The state is not alone. Problems with new Common Core-aligned reading and math tests have been reported all over the country.

But Measured Progress, which has provided Nevada’s pen and paper tests for over 10 years, is claiming the problems arose due to delays in receiving vital computer code from a rival testing vendor.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) was contracted by Smarter Balanced, the developer of the SBAC test, to provide a test platform to other companies that didn’t have their own. One of those companies was Measured Progress. For Measured Progress to be able to administer the test in Nevada, it had to receive AIR’s code and plug it into their servers.

Borg said that when his company initially received the code at the beginning of the year, a few months later than expected, everything looked fine. Then he said the code started causing problems when large numbers of students tried to take the test at one time.

He didn’t say specifically what AIR’s code did wrong, but that Measured Progress’ server capacity was “extensive” and more than capable of handling the tests.

“The Smarter Balanced platform ... was not able to handle the [large number of students] that was required by the Clark County School District,” Borg said. “That’s really where the main problem was.”

The server problems originally pushed back testing in Nevada for two weeks in March, while Measured Progress tried unsuccessfully to find a fix.

“We based our estimates on the amount of servers that were indicated in the early documentation coming from Smarter Balanced,” Borg said. “We made it quite a bit bigger in case the excess capacity was needed.”

One state away in California, though, more than a million students took the SBAC test on AIR’s servers without any major issues.

Borg attributed the problems to the fact that the SBAC is a new test that emphasizes technology. He said testing companies should have had more time to implement AIR’s code, but didn’t say how long would have been sufficient.

“A lot of this is scaling systems, implementing new programs and having the time required to thoroughly vet applications,” he said.

AIR defended itself in an interview with EdWeek last month, saying it performed well under the tight deadlines imposed by Smarter Balanced.

Measured Progress could face potential lawsuits in Nevada and North Dakota, although nothing official has yet been brought by either state. In April, state Superintendent Dale Erquiaga notified both Smarter Balanced and Measured Progress that they were in breach of their contracts.

Borg said the company was still working on fixing issues with the code, but that likely won’t come in time to help states like Nevada.

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