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State Ed Dept, Pearson Corporation Can’t Make Test Work on SF Chromebooks, iPads

The Sioux Falls school district just made a slam-dunk tech decision. They will outfit 17,500 grade 3-12 students with Google Chromebooks. These bare-bones laptops run nothing but 'Net. Communicate with webmail, create and collaborate on documents on Google Docs or another cloud app... what else do students need? Sioux Falls will spend $4.4 million to acquire the machines, which comes out to a right-on-retail $251 per machine. That's a fifth of what other schools have historically spent per Gateway machine or swivel-top Tablet HP. Those huge savings are more than enough to cover the remaining costs of outfitting the K-2 kids with iPads... and we haven't included the savings that the district will enjoy from dropping the costly license contracts for all the software that it cannot and need not install on the Chromebooks.

Enter the state Department of Education to throw a monkey wrench in this smart tech move. Next year, in the final year of the Dakota STEP test, DoE is moving the test online. DoE is now telling Sioux Falls that it can't use its Chromebooks and iPads for the Dakota STEP. Those devices will be fine for the new online tests we get on 2015, but the Pearson corporation that makes our current statewide standardized test says it just can't make the Dakota STEP work on Sioux Falls's chosen technology:

[Education Secretary Melody] Schopp said there are doubts about the ability to lock down the testing window on Chromebooks so that students could not access other applications. And the iPad has a smaller screen than a standard desktop or laptop computer, so the questions might not be displayed in the same way.

Schopp said there is no chance Pearson will address those concerns in time for the 2014 tests, and the Department of Education hasn’t yet decided what to do about it [Josh Verges, "Students Can't Use New Computers for 2014 Tests," that Sioux Falls paper, 2013.04.01].

Horsehockey. Pearson, you have 12 months, You have our money and lots of experts. You can figure this out. The display issues are trivial and fixable with probably four lines of CSS code. The security issues are also malarkey: a little configuring on the testing end, a little filter/firewall action on the school end, and your concerns that kids will cheat on this meaningless (for them) test disappear. The notion that the state Department of Education and an education testing mega-corporation can't solve a simple tech problem that's been addressed by numerous other organizations suggests obstinance or incompetence in both offices.

Secretary Schopp at least has the good sense to say that testing is secondary to district efforts to improve instructional tools. And since tools are secondary to actual instruction, that makes testing tertiary at best, right?


  1. Michael Black 2013.04.02

    Computers are only a tool for learning. Every kid doesn't need to have their face in front of a screen all day long.

  2. Douglas Wiken 2013.04.02

    I don't remember seeing a single good review of the Chromebook. Silicon Snake Oil is still a book that might be worth reading.

  3. grudznick 2013.04.02

    That is useful information, Mr. Wiken. They are cheap and I could afford one but I have been leery leery of them.

  4. Kal Lis 2013.04.02

    I'm not going to disagree with either Doug or Michael; kids may be addicted to screens and the Chromebook may be lousy tech. Both, however, miss the main point of Cory's post.

    The state has hired a firm to write a test. I believe they were paid in the high 6 figures for the last test they wrote. I expect that they will be paid about the same or more for this one.

    Pearson, however, does not have the skills or desire to provide a test that meets the needs of the state's largest district. I don't have the stats in front of me, but I'm pretty sure that SF has about 15% of the SD's students.

    SD should not be giving a firm a substantial amount of money if that firm is unable or unwilling to meet the needs of 15% of the state's students

  5. Sue 2013.04.03

    Never mind the fact that the test will not align with the Common Core State Standards and therefore will provide little useful information. The scores will likely be low and we will have spent a great deal of money to show how inept our education policy makers are.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.03

    Right on, Kal Lis! Pearson works for us. They don't tell us what they can't do. We tell them what we want them to do, and they figure out how to do it.

    Sue, could we just get rid of these tests and get back to trusting the teachers in the classroom and the administrators who hire and pay them?

  7. Anthony D. Renli 2013.04.03

    Ok - I have the dubious pleasure of working with Pearson more often than I would like. (NOT with the state in any capacity) And while I have never be exactly impressed with them, I'm going to play devils advocate.

    I deal with their testing system on a semi-weekly basis - the test taking software and platform are not browser based. If they are using the same testing engine for the state that I deal with, it works as follows. An application launches, locks down system settings (the task bar, the start menu, monitoring all other services that are running to prevent screen readers/capture utilities). It then launches their proprietary testing software that connects to a testing server.

    So, here is how I see it: They were hired to provide tests using their propitiatory - non-web based - testing platform(with fairly stringent controls and requirements as to what can/cannot be installed on the system). They now being asked to re-engineer their testing platform to work on a different infrastructure - and in the case of the Chromebooks, to convert it into a browser app.
    Now iPads - they could simply write a new iPad app - but this would require money to change hands with Apple...I can understand why this is well outside of the scope of the contract to provide testing. This isn't a simple make this work in a different browser with CSS, it's re-engineering the product that they sell because Sioux Falls wanted to save money on laptops.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.03

    Anthony, I appreciate that informed perspective. So, given a new contract, would it take them 12 months to do? Is there really "no chance" that Pearson could make this work, even if Sioux Falls paid for the contract with its laptop savings?

    It seems a darn shame, though, that Sioux Falls would have to pay for a one-time refit. Perhaps now is the perfect time for Sioux Falls to stage a rebellion against the testing regime and dare the state to yank their license over it. It's the last year of D-STEP; what good will the 2014 D-STEP data do when it won't align with the new Common Core/Smarter Balanced tests? Just skip it, Sioux Falls, and enjoy the savings in time and money.

  9. Anthony D. Renli 2013.04.03

    Most likely - for what South Dakota is willing to pay - I'm guessing that no, they can't do it in 12 months.
    iPads would basically be a no-go. Apple basically doesn't allow any customization/over-rides of their interface - and even if they could talk them into doing it - Apple would want a share of the license fees for every iPad involved.
    Chromebooks are bacially a web browser - and that's it.

  10. Anthony D. Renli 2013.04.03

    grr....I hate the enter key.
    Ok - they can't run anything except google chrome, so they would have to write some kind of web code that would basically lock down the browser and stop it from doing what it does. I don't even know if that is possible - and even if it is we'd be looking at hundreds if not thousands of developer hours - I'm guessing that this would cost the state around $1M+ to make this happen.

    I agree - Sioux Falls should just dump the tests :)

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.03

    Dumping the tests is definitely Option #1.

    Given my doubt that any school board, certainly not the Sioux Falls school board, will show such spine and good sense, let's look at testing options. It appears that as of this March, North Carolina has been able to get classroom and benchmark assessments that run on Chromebooks and iPads. NC's Department of Public Instruction
    says iPads are currently certified for their statewide assessment, but not Chromebooks. NCDPI says it's working with Pearson to get a lockdown browser feature for Chromebooks:

    "Pearson is currently modifying the browser lockdown feature of the summative assessment secure testing tunnel in Home Base to support tablet devices and Chromebooks and will complete the modifications by August 2014. This enhancement will enable districts/schools to deliver statewide summative assessments through Home Base using Chromebooks and iPads."

    Pearson is already doing the work we're talking about; if we really want it, we should be able to chip in for a few extra developers to speed that work.

  12. Brian Moffet 2013.12.13

    NWEA MAP testing works fine on Chromebooks, why not MCA? Get your act together Pearson.

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