A computer problem that interrupted FCAT testing for tens of thousands of students this week underscores the reasons Florida should slow down its overhaul of school testing and grading systems. Blind adherence to a deadline rather than making time for a reasonable implementation plan defies logic and threatens to run the state's education system off a cliff. Again. It is still not too late to hit the brakes.
On Tuesday, Pasco and Hernando County students were among children in at least a dozen Florida school districts who were unable to complete their FCAT exams because of computer problems. Some students couldn't sign in. Others reported slow responses when they tried to download test questions or submit answers. State officials blamed test provider Pearson Education. By Wednesday, the server problems responsible for the glitches had been fixed, though Pasco suspended testing on Thursday because of local connection issues. Despite the quick fix in most districts, the damage to the state's credibility and perhaps students' confidence was already done. It was not the first time the state has had problems with Pearson. The company's system also stalled in 2011 during end-of-course algebra exams.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has ignored the advice of county school superintendents and pressed forward with the adoption of a new school grading system, the selection of a company to create new standardized tests and the full implementation of a new curriculum, Florida Standards. A train wreck like Tuesday's testing debacle is exactly what superintendents have been trying to warn Stewart about. The Department of Education is undertaking a gargantuan effort. Frontline workers in schools have repeatedly told state officials that the department should slow down. But they keep plowing ahead. A stumble this big on tests the state has been giving since the 1990s lends credence to the theory that the education department has taken on more than it can handle.
By their nature, computers can be undependable. That's why a backup plan is critical as the state moves toward a myriad of changes next school year. The state should stop speeding though this important transition just to score political points and avoid taking a breather that would remind families of a time when there was not so much high-stakes standardized testing. Meaningful accountability continues to be the goal, but the race to get there without proper planning invites more trouble.