Pearson Blames ‘Third Party’ Attack for Disrupting Minnesota Online Tests

Associate Editor

Minnesota halted its state assessments in science on Wednesday and Thursday due to a lack of confidence “that Pearson’s system will operate smoothly,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius announced.

For the second time this testing season, Minnesota’s assessments were disrupted by a “distributed denial-of-service attack,” and Pearson, the global education company that designed and is administering the state’s tests, told state officials that this was a larger and more sophisticated attack than one that occurred on April 21.

“It is simply unacceptable and unfair to subject students and teachers to this kind of uncertainty in a high-stakes testing environment,” Cassellius said in a statement“I have questions about Pearson’s ability to follow through on their assurances.” The company holds a three-year contract, valued at $33.8 million, to administer Minnesota’s reading, math and science proficiency tests. 

Pearson also released a statement, saying the company had worked throughout the day on Wednesday to mitigate what it described as malicious third-party attacks, in an effort to “minimize the disruptions and return service to normal.” The company also said it is actively working to “strengthen our defenses to fend off these attacks,” and assured the state that student data was not targeted, or at risk.

Rather, the attack was “a deliberate attempt by an outside party to overload and slow down system traffic,” Pearson’s statement said. The company acknowledged that the degradation in service slows system responsiveness, “which could affect a student’s ability to start or continue testing.”

After the earlier attack, Pearson added additional security measures to prevent this type of disruption. On April 22, Pearson sent a letter to the state education department. Part of the company’s response reads:

The corrective actions Pearson has taken to address yesterday’s events, in addition to the 
measures enacted last week to address hardware failure experienced on Tuesday, April 14, 
allow Pearson to be confident that any similar service interruptions will be avoided for the 
remainder of the MCA testing window.

In 2014, Minnesota awarded the three-year contract to design and administer the assessments for grades 3 through 10. When it announced the contract, Minnesota indicated that Pearson would collaborate with the education department “to ensure a seamless and secure assessment process for schools, while working to expand accessiblity of online testing” to students across the state.

Earlier this year, Pearson and the state had to resolve issues with online testing breakdowns that disrupted trial exams in advance of the spring testing season. In that case, one of the issues was incompatibilty between Pearson’s testing portal and Apple’s standard Safari web browser.

In 2013, Minnesota’s assessment delivery issues were with the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, Then, Minnesota was forced to extend the testing window after a range of glitches prevented students from completing the MCAs on time. 

Testing disruptions have been reported throughout the country this season, for a variety of reasons. See our roundup below.

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2 thoughts on “Pearson Blames ‘Third Party’ Attack for Disrupting Minnesota Online Tests

  1. What a coincidence, someone must have attacked the system in Colorado last month also.

    Every time that we called Pearson support, the person we talked to had to put us on hold every question and go to ask someone else.

    Any other business delivered as bad a product as Pearson and they’d be out of business. I wonder why Pearson isn’t held to the same standards as everyone else for delivering what they promise and are paid for.

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