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More than half of Florida's school districts report problems as new tests get under way

The debut of Florida's new computerized testing system stumbled in its first hours Monday, as more than half of the state's school districts reported trouble accessing material online.

Thousands of eighth-, ninth- and tenth-graders attempting to log in at the same time appeared to overload the system, causing a slowdown that prompted many schools to call off the writing test for the day. Among the details:

• Teachers could not sign on to begin their session, which meant students could not access the test.

• Some students were kicked off in the middle of their test, and lost their answers.

• Others received an error message that could not be explained.

In the Tampa Bay area, the Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco county school systems reported problems, as did all of the state's largest districts.

The issues surfaced in 36 counties after months of warnings from superintendents, teachers, school boards and politicians that Florida's transition to new tests was too rushed and schools were not ready.

A least three superintendents, including Pasco's Kurt Browning, suspended computerized testing in their districts through Tuesday and perhaps longer. Browning said that, after speaking with state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, he was not confident the problems could be quickly corrected and did not want any more students doubting the tests' validity.

"This was not a heavy testing day," Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said, noting that only three grade levels were involved. "What we want in this state and what we're trying to say is, we really want optimal testing conditions for our students. … These things are not optimal."

Meghan Collins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, issued a statement saying the department would find out what caused the difficulties. She noted there is time to repair the problems.

"This is a 90-minute test; students have a two-week window, plus a makeup window, to complete the test," Collins said. "Commissioner Stewart is looking into any reported issues to determine the cause and will work to immediately resolve it."

A resolution was not at hand during Monday's sessions, though, as scores of students struggled to test.

"It's slow," said Hillsborough County schools spokesman Steve Hegarty. "The volume seems to be affecting the online testing."

Hegarty said Hillsborough schools had the option to postpone the Florida Standards Assessments writing exam to later in the testing window. At least 18 middle schools did so.

Pinellas County rescheduled testing at 15 high schools and five middle schools. All had some problems, district spokeswoman Melanie Parra said, leading to several rescheduled exams.

Pasco County's Seven Springs Middle School also chose that path.

Other Pasco schools reported waiting up to two hours before students could log in to the system, but continued with the testing. Wiregrass Ranch High School assistant principal Shauntte Butcher said all but seven students completed their tests on Monday, although some needed 30 minutes to access them.

Districts across the state — including Orange, Miami-Dade, Volusia and Palm Beach — also canceled some testing because of difficulties with the state website.

More than two dozen superintendents offered warnings about the system's readiness in letters to the department last week.

Highlands County superintendent Wally Cox pointedly wrote that early trial runs to gauge districts' computer capacity would not reveal the full impact of the entire state logging on at once.

"Does a successful lab, school or district infrastructure trial really measure the state's network to handle the capacity of test day?" Cox wrote. "The stakes are too high to find this out during testing."

The testing load will increase in April, when fifth- through 10-graders take computerized language arts tests, and fifth- through eighth-graders face online math exams.

Noting the multitude of early warnings, critics were quick to jump on the FDOE for moving ahead as if all were well. Facebook chat groups were filled with "I told you sos" and the occasional call for Stewart's ouster.

"The reason Florida's new computerized tests are not ready for prime time is that they were rushed into place by a politically mandated schedule from Tallahassee, not technical competence or educational readiness, as reported by Florida superintendents," said Bob Schaeffer, a Lee County activist and public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

This was not the first time Florida has run into technology problems with school testing. In April 2014, the state suspended FCAT testing because of troubles with the state testing company's hosting servers. In May 2011, students could not submit their completed end-of-course exams, again because of server problems.

Knowing the past and the predictions, state Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he anticipated Monday's issues. He rejected any argument, though, that the state should postpone or suspend testing while working out the kinks.

"You're always going to have implementation issues," Legg said. "You can't just say we're going to do pencil and paper forever from now on."

Legg's committee is scheduled to discuss testing reform legislation on Wednesday. One provision would create an accountability contingency plan for districts that have demonstrated "implementation failure" with their technology.

He said he expected lively debate, especially given Monday's turn of events: "There's nothing like starting off session with a large issue that's relevant."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

More than half of Florida's school districts report problems as new tests get under way 03/02/15 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2015 9:33pm]
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