Tampa Bay school districts unfazed by testing contractor's computer glitch

Some students taking a new standardized math test in Florida ran into problems Tuesday because of computer problems with the testing contractor. But school officials around Tampa Bay did not consider it a major glitch.

At issue was the Algebra I test administered by Pearson, the company that failed to deliver Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results on time last year.

Because of a nationwide outage with Pearson's computer system, some students couldn't begin testing on schedule, while others couldn't resume after a break. Some results also couldn't be immediately sent to Pearson, but were stored locally and sent later.

"Any hiccup's going to be an inconvenience," said Octavio Salcedo, testing director for the Pinellas school district. But "I didn't see it as a huge issue."

The system went down about 9:25 a.m. The state Department of Education told districts at 12:07 p.m. that it was back up.

Pearson spokesman Adam Gaber wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that he didn't have specifics on what went wrong, but "do know that it was fixed some time ago."

"In short," he continued, "it was a minor issue that was quickly resolved."

Pearson, one of the world's biggest testing companies, is under intense scrutiny in Florida. It drew bipartisan outrage last year — and $15 million in penalties — when problems with its database technology led to a weekslong delay in getting FCAT scores. Earlier this year, it raised eyebrows when school districts got improperly packaged exams for the FCAT writing test.

The Algebra I test is part of a new wave of standardized tests in Florida. It and other such "end-of-course" exams are replacing portions of the FCAT, which has dominated student testing since the late 1990s. It's also among the first statewide tests to be administered by computer.

Statewide, more than 200,000 middle and high school students are taking the Algebra I exams, including 11,000 in Pinellas alone. Testing began May 9 and continues through May 27.

Nicole Binder, manager of assessments for the Hillsborough County School District, said she was in the Pearson system about 9:30 a.m. when she saw it go down and alerted schools.

"If they had already begun testing, there was no harm, no foul," she said. That's because the system has students save the entire test to the Hillsborough computer system.

Students did not need to interact with Pearson until they submitted the test. By that time, for many students, the system was back up. For those who could not submit their answers, the schools marked them complete and submitted them for the student.

In some cases, Binder said, students hadn't started their tests. Those students took the tests in the afternoon or rescheduled them for later this week.

The district was also better prepared, officials said, because they went through another glitch when violent weather disrupted high school seniors retaking the FCAT so they could graduate.

Since then, schools have received better materials and training to prepare for such disruptions.

Pasco research and evaluation director Peggy Jones said most schools in Pasco had not yet started the exam at the time of the glitch so they just took the tests later.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Marlene Sokol can be reached a sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 226-356.

Tampa Bay school districts unfazed by testing contractor's computer glitch 05/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 11:04am]

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