PARCC Computers Crashing as a Metaphor

Bill Michaelson's picture

Early in my career as a computer programmer, I worked with teams to design and deploy systems to support the day-to-day operations of financial institutions. Critical to the operation of our systems were particular attributes: Reliability and Availability. Stuff happens. Things break. We plan for it. Organizations should not stop operating when failures occur because failures are predictable.

Reliability and Availability, two of the most important attributes of any computer system, are designed in.


Failures are anticipated and systems are designed so that failures don't cascade, but rather, are contained. It's not engineering wizardry. It's a simple concept. So our distributed branch banking systems were designed to operate autonomously when connectivity to the central system failed. Business didn't stop. Transactions were logged in an offline mode until connectivity was restored.

Three years ago, when I listened to Pearson representatives at the Forrestal Center near Princeton tell us about the PARCC system and its technical underpinnings, I was baffled by one aspect of the design: All districts need to be continuously online, connected to the Pearson mothership during the time that students are taking the PARCC test. My questioning of the wisdom of such a requirement was dismissed.

This is not a difficult technical problem to analyze. Keep in mind that we are replacing a process which has been conducted by paper and pencil and is equivalent. There are no real-time transactions to contend with such as the banking systems of my experience. Why on earth must test administration be monitored in real-time from a central location? Yet even the banking systems were resilient. They were fault-tolerant. 35 years ago.

This morning I am watching reports of massive failures of operation in schools across New Jersey. Apparently something is wrong at Pearson Central, and the PARCC tests - the tests that have been causing school districts to run in circles with scheduling disruption through this month - are just not happening as they were supposed to. This is disruption upon disruption to the education of our children in hundreds of communities across New Jersey. In purely monetary terms, it represents lost time that runs into the tens of millions, and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars. Look at what it costs to run education for 180 days a year in New Jersey. Do the math. Business as usual for PARCC.

This failure to design a system that cannot operate in districts autonomously is a humongous demonstration of incompetence. It should never have happened, and such a glaring Achille's Heel should have been identified by those responsible for procurement at the New Jersey Department of Education. This is a blot on our leadership, and a clue that we need to clean house, both personnel- and policy-wise.

But I see another clue. This is a metaphor for a larger system that eschews resiliency through autonomy and diversity. It is about the direction in which we are driving our education system and the dangers of rigid centralized control. It is about questions we should ask regarding a common set of educational standards married to a rigid system of standardized testing. Robust, resilient systems are flexible. Education will be the foundation of our future society. We are building something brittle.

Dear Parents and Guardians,

Good morning. Due to technical difficulties at the state level, the AM PARCC testing session for students on the O and D team was canceled today. Students will make up this day of testing at a later date. We will communicate the make-up day of testing as soon as we solidify the altered schedule.

Thank you in advance for your understanding.