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Teachers frustrated by computer problems plaguing new online reading test

State education officials touted it as the Cadillac of tests, a new $9 million online tool that would let teachers know immediately how well students were learning to read.

Schools began using it in August — and quickly hit a wall. Computer problems have plagued the state's servers, kicking students off in mid test, forcing teachers to start over and in some instances bringing testing to a screeching halt, including this week.

Teachers are annoyed and frustrated by the glitches in trying to use the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading — FAIR for short. It's prompted massive grumbling statewide as districts scramble to meet an Oct. 19 deadline.

The frustration level has been "intensive," said Pinellas assistant superintendent Pam Moore. "Teachers are not trusting the results because they've had so many technology issues."

The FAIR database was down Monday and part of Tuesday. Only 63 percent of the state's students had completed the assessment at that point, said Tom Butler, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education. By Thursday, testing had resumed in 38 districts.

"We've identified several issues as they've come up," Butler said. "First it was it was bandwidth. Then it was servers. Now it looks like database issues."

The state will be flexible with the Oct. 19 deadline, he said.

Among Tampa Bay area school districts, Hillsborough has fared the best with about 98 percent of students tested. Pasco and Hernando are each 83 percent complete, district officials said.

"Some of our schools are lagging behind a bit, but as a whole, the odds of our meeting that first window are pretty good," said Michael Cloyd, supervisor of secondary reading and curriculum for Pasco schools.

Hoping to ease pressure on the system, Pinellas adopted a staggered schedule for schools to access the database. So far only 65 percent of students have completed the testing. At Lakewood High School, 200 students who were kicked offline are still waiting to be retested.

And teachers are expected to begin a second round of testing after Thanksgiving.

"Most of them are asking, 'When can I get the rest of my kids tested?' " said Pat Schley, a reading coach at Lakewood.

After this week's problems, the Florida Education Association sent an e-mail to local union officials acknowledging their concerns with the testing.

"FAIR is taking time out of what the state says it wants teachers to do, which is teach," said Marshall Ogletree. executive director of the Pinellas teachers union. "The state may have piloted this, but it certainly wasn't ready for 67 school districts."

Here's how FAIR is supposed to work:

Students in grades 3-12 begin the online test with a review of their reading comprehension. Younger children are tested on how well they listen. Other sections of the test measure vocabulary, spelling and word recognition.

Teachers get the test results the next morning, enabling them to adjust their instruction. They also learn each student's chance of success on the FCAT.

"When it works like it's supposed to, it's quick and easy," said Connie Kolosey, Pinellas' supervisor of secondary reading and language arts.

Hillsborough officials think testing has gone better in their district because they piloted the program last spring. "We (only) had a few outages during a couple of days," said chief information officer David Steele.

Despite the frustrations, many are optimistic FAIR will prove useful. At least one principal believes it has already.

Debi Turner, principal at Blanton Elementary in unincorporated Pinellas, said her teachers have used FAIR data collected on third-graders to develop more targeted lesson plans.

"For years we collected data, but we didn't really know what to do with it," Turner said. "This assessment is helping us formulate a plan."

Administrators like Moore in Pinellas continue to urge teachers to be patient. Eventually "it will be wonderful," she said. "It really will be."

Times staffers Ron Matus, Tom Marshall and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

Read more about the Florida Assessments for Instruction in reading at www.fcrr.org/fair/index.htm.

On the Web

For more on the Florida Assessments for Instruction in reading go to www.fcrr.org/fair/index.htm.

Teachers frustrated by computer problems plaguing new online reading test 10/09/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 9:35pm]
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