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Nev. Vendor: American Institutes for Research at Fault for Testing Disruptions

Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog

By Michele Molnar

A vendor blamed for Nevada's recent online testing disruptions has pointed the finger at a rival assessment organization, which it said was slow to deliver technology critical to the successful administration of the exam.

The vendor, Measured Progress, a Dover, N.H.-based nonprofit, was taken to task this week by state officials, who said the organization was in breach of contract, along with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of states that designed Nevada's common core-aligned tests.

But Measured Progress, without naming names, pointed to "multiple and delayed deliveries of the source code" that the organization said was necessary to ensure that the Nevada assessment could be sufficiently tested so it would perform as expected when large numbers of test takers were on it.

The organization that is under contract to provide the open-source test delivery system is the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, a Washington-based testing vendor, according to Smarter Balanced officials.

The AIR has emerged as major player in recent years in the increasingly competitive world of state assessments. The testing vendor holds the contract to produce the testing platform to deliver Smarter Balanced tests in all 18 states. The AIR was expected to develop "open-source" software, which uses coding that is released universally so that any programmer can access it in order to change, enhance or build upon it.

Jon Cohen, the president of the AIR's assessment division, said his organization had been charged with delivering an enormously complex system across multiple states, under tight deadlines, and has performed well.

"There have been minimal delays," Cohen said in a phone interview. He added that most software products experience delays in the development and release process. "Our scheduled delivery of the system was in September [of 2014]. We got most of it delivered in time and [provided] updates after that."

Nevada has recently experienced widespread delays in giving online assessments. State officials at one point said they thought the problems had been overcome, but they re-emerged. The disruptions led Nevada's state schools chief Dale Erquiaga to notify Measured Progress and Smarter Balanced that he deemed each of them to be in "breach of contract," and that the state would potentially seek damages and legal remedies to fix the problem.

But Martin Borg, president and CEO of Measured Progress, said in a statement that his organization performed "exhaustive quality assurance testing every time we received updated code from the Smarter Balanced vendor." However, he said the delays in receiving the code from the vendor—he did not identify the AIR by name—limited how confidently Measured Progress could predict how the assessment delivery system would perform during peak traffic times.

Borg and Cohen agree about the complexity of the task of delivering the assessments. In the statement from Measured Progress, Borg said that "assessing this many students online at once throughout the country on an open-source platform is new and unprecedented, and there were bound to be some initial challenges."

For his part, Cohen said: "This has been an enormously complicated endeavor. Everyone, including Smarter Balanced, Measured Progress, and all the other partners have been aware of the complexity."

Smarter Balanced indicated that it is "actively engaged to ensure Nevada students can take the test," according to a statement from Tony Alpert, the consortium's executive director. "This continues to be Smarter Balanced highest priority."

Measured Progress apologized "for the frustration and inconvenience that students and educators experienced" as a result of the online testing glitches in Nevada.

The AIR ran into trouble earlier this month in Florida, where it holds a six-year, $220 million contract to oversee testing. A series of online testing delays and disruptions plagued districts across the state, a derailment that drew an angry reaction from state education commissioner Pam Stewart, who called the vendor's failure to prevent the problems "absolutely unacceptable." The AIR apologized for the testing glitches, saying they had been caused by the installation of new servers, a change that the vendor said was not handled properly.

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