Florida school districts suspend online FCAT after glitches

Officials blame the test provider after glitches force some districts to suspend testing.
Published April 22 2014
Updated April 23 2014

Problems with Florida's annual FCAT test on Tuesday rekindled simmering concerns that the state isn't ready for its next steps toward full computerized testing.

At least a dozen Florida school districts, including Pasco and Hernando, were forced to suspend online testing Tuesday as students had trouble signing in to take the annual exam. No problems were reported in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.

State officials blamed test provider Pearson Education for the situation. Other problems included slowness when students tried to download test questions or submit answers, and a warning screen that students should notify their teacher or proctor.

"This failure is inexcusable," Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote in a letter to Walter Sherwood, president of state services for Pearson.

"Florida's students and teachers work too hard on learning to be distracted by these needless and avoidable technological issues. I expect a resolution and an explanation for this immediately. I also intend to pursue all liquidated damages and other remedies that may be available as a result of Pearson's failure to fulfill its duty under the contract with the department."

Gov. Rick Scott called the problems "unacceptable" and said state education officials "will do whatever they can to make sure this wrong is corrected."

Pearson issued a statement explaining that it had a "network issue" with Savvis, a company it described as a third-party hosting service provider.

"We are working closely with Savvis to remedy the situation as soon as possible," the company said. "Even with the disruption, which did present difficulties for some school districts, many students are testing normally with almost 200,000 tests delivered today."

But for tens of thousands of other students across the state, the difficulties had not been resolved by midday, prompting most affected districts to cancel online testing for the day. The districts' testing plans for Wednesday were not immediately known.

The scenario fueled criticism that Florida is moving too fast in its effort to replace the FCAT, the school grading system and other education accountability measures.

"It questions the readiness of districts and states to go full digital in testing," Pasco assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said.

The state's digital learning readiness gauge indicates fewer than half of districts have adequate student-computer ratios, broadband speed or high-speed wireless access.

Lawmakers have raised questions over whether schools can meet the technology demand. Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said the testing glitches underscored the need to invest in education technology.

"Technology has problems," said Legg, who is sponsoring a bill that would require school districts to develop digital technology plans. "But just because there are problems doesn't mean we should stop and not do it. It means that we need to put the resources there."

He initially recommended school districts receive $100 million for the upgrades. The Senate's proposed budget includes $40 million.

Meanwhile, district officials have urged the state to slow its transition to new tests, school grading and accountability requirements.

"This should be a teachable moment for the Florida Department of Education as they enter a new era of testing next year: Slow down, make sure every aspect of the testing program works, involve teachers and administrators in this massive undertaking and get it right," Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said in a prepared statement.

So far, Stewart has held firm to her schedule of implementing new, still-to-be-written tests from the American Institutes of Research in spring 2015. Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick suggested that problems with Pearson, which did not win the new testing contract, should not impact the move.

"It would be premature and potentially misleading to infer any implications for the broader topic of computer testing based on what appears to be an isolated, Pearson-related issue," he said.

Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which opposes high-stakes testing, disagreed.

Schaeffer noted that Pearson has had problems implementing computerized tests in Florida and other states over several years. Wyoming fined Pearson $5.1 million in 2011, for instance, over software problems, switching back to paper tests afterward.

Florida schools lost access to Pearson's servers for the 2011 algebra end-of-course exams, as well.

And it's not just Pearson. American Institutes of Research had a technology failure that crashed Minnesota's 2013 state math exams.

"The state's infrastructure can't handle the load and we are spending millions of dollars on a company that cannot deliver," Hernando teachers union president Jo Ann Hartge said in an email. "We should be allowed to teach and assess in a way that is meaningful for student achievement."

State officials said they would continue to monitor the FCAT situation and alert districts when it is fixed. They told superintendents that they could receive added time to complete the testing if necessary.

Times staff writer Danny Valentine and Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.