Meet Ayush Sharma, an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ayush grew up in northern India, in the city of Kanpur.
"I never imagined I would get to study at MIT," he writes. "I had always wanted to go to a prestigious university, but I just didn't see how it would ever be possible for me to get one."
A local learning company called Avanti helped Ayush prepare for his college entrance tests. It's the kind of affordable learning solution supported by the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, or PALF.
"The private sector has a vital role to play in making it possible for every child to have access to higher quality education," writes Katelyn Donnelly, who is PALF's Managing Director.
What Katelyn and her colleagues are learning by investing in education programs that are affordable, innovative, and effective improves learning anywhere ... where anyone, like Ayush, can say: "I am so proud to say that I am now an engineering student at one of the best universities in the world."
My mother recently retired after two decades as a para-military constable, and my father is a mechanic in our hometown of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh; neither of my parents went to university, so it would have been understandable if they had pushed me down a more conventional path of college prep with one of the established local courses. I’m so grateful that they supported me in choosing Avanti instead.
At Avanti, being able to study with my peers was a much more attractive option than learning by rote. It was the learning outside the classroom, however, that really opened up possibilities for me. It started with the foreign applications program manager.
Through him, we heard about the various summer programs across top US universities—I got both encouragement and advice on putting myself forward for the Yale Young Global Scholars program. I was selected for Yale’s program and I think that was when I really began to understand what I would need to do to apply to US colleges for my undergraduate studies.
It was a fantastic experience, and I returned to India believing that MIT really could be within reach. It was not easy, especially improving my English and navigating the complex US application process, but Avanti had a personal mentor throughout our college applications, that supported me.
The first semester at MIT has been a whirlwind of projects, problem sets, and amazing new people. I hope that this is just the start for me, but for now, I am so proud to say that I am now an engineering student at one of the best universities in the world.
"From Pakistan to Ghana to the Philippines," writes Katelyn Donnelly about her travels around the world to research learning, "parents, students, and heads of state saw education and skill development as a critical gateway to a more prosperous life and a stronger economy."
"Large swaths of parents and students in the developing world," Katelyn writes, "have a tremendous demand for high-quality education and would choose to invest their scarce dollars in learning opportunities to provide for a better future for their families."
Katelyn is Managing Director of the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, or PALF. The fund invests in for-profit companies around the world to meet the demand for affordable education in developing communities.
Fueling Innovation in Learning Across the World
The priority of education for parents and students in Lahore or Nairobi or Johannesburg, of course, is generally the same priority of education for parents and students in Las Vegas, Nashville, or Jacksonville.
It follows, then, that learning and innovation generated by PALF-supported projects in the developing world can build and strengthen ANY educational system.
"Within these micro-communities and micro-geographies," Katelyn writes, "people will eventually be able to learn from other larger communities and together we’ll create a more global ecosystem of entrepreneurs and innovators that are learning from each other.”
The Need for Learning
Just prior to the launch of the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, Katelyn settled on a path to improve affordable learning during a research trip to Pakistan.
It was during that trip, she writes, when she "confronted the abysmal state of education that millions of children and parents face around the world":
Better Learning Outcomes
After this trip, Katelyn was able to convince Pearson to get involved.
She and others, she writes: "conceptualized a way for the world's largest education company to play a leading role in fueling innovation across the developing world—and therefore better learning outcomes."
This is the second in a series of stories helping parents understand how their child’s assessments unfold before, during, and after the test. Other stories in this series include: a video about how tests are scored and how the tests are created in the first place.
Assessing a Year's Worth of Learning
This Spring, millions of children from New Mexico to Minnesota and Indiana to New Jersey, will sit in front of computer screens to take an exam that seeks to measure a year’s worth of learning.
At the same time, Jim Sherlock’s team will sit down in front of a multitude of screens at a quiet office park in Iowa City, Iowa. Jim is a former educator and one of hundreds of people who work behind the scenes to make sure the technology behind online assessments comes off without a hitch.
(See a profile of Jim and other team members below. Also below: an infographic about the "Myths and Facts About Assessments.")
The results of these tests are important—they tell parents and educators how students are progressing in their education and provide valuable feedback about whether students are on track to earn the skills necessary for a good job and a better life.
In order to get the best feedback to parents and students, the assessments must run smoothly. That’s where Jim and his Application Performance Management team at Pearson’s Operation Command Center comes in.
Last spring, Pearson delivered more than 15 million online assessments with no downtime. Even during the spring semester, more than 1.2 million students per day take some form of online tests, from 7:30 am - 5:30 pm EDT. Ensuring that students have a good testing experience requires a sophisticated network operations center.
What Pearson Is Monitoring ...
The Command Center is a vital step in ensuring the smooth performance of assessments. Even small delays in testing—such as problems logging in or tests not loading properly--can cause major disruptions to a school day and student schedules.
For the Command Center group, it’s all about system performance on the test, not student performance. In fact, part of the team’s job is ensuring the systems are as secure as possible, so no one can see student information or disrupt testing in any way.
That’s why the Pearson Performance Management team collects more than 1.5 million metrics every 30 seconds from various servers, applications, and services nationwide. They are monitoring things such as website availability, with more than 800 simultaneous checks running from dozens of testing locations around the country. They also study server load and bandwidth so thousands of students can test at the same time without overloading the system.
... And What Pearson Is Not Monitoring
But, there is one big thing the team isn’t seeing: individual student data. The team has no way to monitor which students are testing, test scores or any personal information about the students.
The Command Center staff can tell you the volume of children testing in a state at any given time, but they don’t know a child’s name, a location or how a child scored on the test. They also don’t monitor social media.
“We invest more rigor and focus on software development quality than most of our peers,” says Jim Sherlock. “We meet with our computing partners every week, and they love talking with us because we stay on the cutting edge of application performance management and end-user experience monitoring.”
Moving Online—and the Cloud
This year, Pearson estimates it will facilitate millions of online tests around the country. More and more states are moving to online testing because those tests are more engaging for students, they return faster results and better reflect learning in the classroom. For example, in states using the PARCC assessment, a full 90% of students will take the test online this year.
As more states move to online tests, more of those tests are hosted on the cloud.
“If you choose to go to the cloud, you need to be even more secure than a brick and mortar environment, ” says Jim Sherlock.
To achieve an advanced cloud solution that meets testing requirements, the Command Center’s software and customer support team works year-round. The team deploys new features and tests bandwidth and security so that millions of American students can take their tests on time.
It Takes Hundreds to Test Millions
From help desk and network monitoring to software development and quality assurance, the Command Center team engages in a wide variety of tasks to provide testing services to students. Meet some of the people making assessments run smoothly every day.
Jim started at Pearson working the help desk. He says the experience benefits his approach to operations and security, giving him a unique perspective on the two.
Before his current role, he managed the operations center for 7 years.
Jim got a Masters in Education, and wanted to teach. He ended up working for the Department of Defense doing network security. When he moved back to Iowa, he merged his love for education and technology by joining the Pearson team.
Jerry certifies that Pearson complies with security requirements. He also makes sure that the assessments are up and running 24/7.
Jerry is a reservist in the U.S. Army where he serves as a captain. Since he’s been at Pearson, Jerry has been deployed to Afghanistan, Latin America and Korea.
He’s also a proud owner of a Commodore 64, a computer that dates back to 1982 that he himself made when he was a kid—which you can see in his photograph.
Vani says working in the tech operations group gives her a great sense of teamwork and collaboration. She says the tech ops team is on the forefront of technology. They are the first to test a new technology, and, once they have a secure use for the tool, they move it out across the system.
Vani got her electrical engineering degree in India. She came to America to work for a client, General Electric. After a while she got married and had kids. When her husband got a job at Pearson, she moved with him to Iowa and got a job at the same facility. The two work for different teams, but they make sure to see each other every day at lunch.
Chris is part of the monitoring team in the operations center. He guarantees that all of the systems are running in proper order.
Chris started with Pearson nine years ago as a test scorer, straight out of the University of Iowa. He got his bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering.
Bin ensures new deployments go smoothly by making sure that replication and data flow between databases works seamlessly.
He enjoys learning the latest technology developments, like cloud-based deployments and open source tools.
Judah makes sure apps for the students and teachers using the Pearson online system perform perfectly.
He likes working at Pearson because of its commitment to quality IT services.
Judah received a BS in Statistics and Computer Science from the University of Iowa and is currently earning a masters.
Ashley manages projects across the operations center team. She ensures that teams stay on task and that they are communicating well among themselves—and with clients on the outside.
Her group focuses on infrastructure to make sure products are ready for customers.
This is the first in a series of stories helping parents understand how their child’s assessments unfold before, during, and after the test. Other stories in this series include: more information about how Pearson ensures online security and technical proficiency as well as a video about how Pearson conducts its tests.
What do you think is the first step in test development?
A. Field tests to make sure everything is working properly.
B. States adopt benchmarks for what students should know.
C. "Item" or test question development.
D. Setting performance standards.
E. Building the test itself.
If you answered B, you are correct!
Every test starts first at the state level where legislators and officials outline what every student should know by the end of the year.
Creating the Test
With assessment season under way, you might be wondering just what it takes to create a test. Well, we have the answer and it’s in five easy-to-understand steps:
Step 1: States outline academic standards.
This is where it all begins.
States and/or groups of states outline what students should know and be able to do. Known as academic standards, these benchmarks not only determine what a state wants its students to know by the end of the school year—they also set the foundation for instruction in the classroom and the assessment itself.
Once the academic standards are set, the state determines which testing partner they’d like to provide the tests for their communities. This is where Pearson may come in.
Step 2: "Item" or test question development.
Pearson experts team up with former or current teachers, professors, Ph.D. professionals and the group puts its experience and knowledge of the subject matter to the test—literally—to create “items.” Items can be multiple-choice questions, interactive technology items, essay prompts, tasks, situation examples, or activities. And each one of them is geared to a state standard.
Typically, these external experts draft the initial versions of test items, then Pearson experts shepherd the items through a rigorous development process.
Once the questions are developed, teachers, content experts, higher education faculty and state education leaders review them to ensure the tests are fair, reliable and accurate. It is not uncommon during this review stage that some questions are thrown out.
Step 3: Field tests or "trials."
Now it’s time for a test run to ensure each question is fair for all.
Field tests are a part of the process that enables Pearson along with state partners to test items—not the kids. We are testing to see that the questions are worthy of being used to assess skills and knowledge appropriately.
Students’ scores on field-tests are only used to evaluate the questions—and give all students a level playing field. They are in no way used to calculate a student’s score for the year.
During a field test, we can also see if gender, ethnicity or even English proficiency have an impact on a child’s ability to successfully perform the task at hand. All of this is done to verify that each and every question is fair.
A group of teachers and education experts are involved in reviewing the results and making decisions along the way.
Quite simply put, this stage helps us assess if an item meets expectations or not. If it doesn’t, it’s cut.
Step 4: Build the test.
Once the questions are determined to be fair, free of bias, and that they're assessing what they are intended to asses, the test is put into its final form in print or digitally.
Easier questions are mixed with more challenging questions. This variety and mix of content helps us understand what a child really knows at the end of the assessment.
Step 5: Setting performance standards.
In the final step, states and their educators, with expert statistical information provided by Pearson, make decisions about how well students must perform to pass or be proficient on assessments.
Performance can be defined in many ways, but these “performance standards” provide a frame of reference for interpreting the test scores. This feedback can help students, parents, educators, administrators, and policymakers understand how well a student did by using a category rating.
That’s how it’s done.
There is a lot of time (sometimes even years) to make sure this rigorous process is followed closely—all to ensure that tests and assessments are fair and accurate before getting to your kids hands.
This is the third in a series of stories helping parents understand how their child’s assessments unfold before, during, and after the test. Other stories in this series include: how assessments are developed from scratch and how Pearson ensures security and agility in its online scoring systems.
How does Pearson do it? An Explainer
We've shared this video before and wanted to post it again for this series about assessments.