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Another morning of glitches adds to Florida's school testing woes

Published May 14, 2015

For the third time in three months, Florida students ran into trouble Wednesday taking state computerized tests.

This time, nearly 600,000 students faced a potential "log-in issue" that prevented many from taking their end-of-course exams in civics, biology and U.S. history. After receiving several calls from across Florida, the Department of Education advised districts to stop the exams until the vendor for the tests, London-based Pearson, could identify and fix the problem.

Pasco County schools canceled testing for the day, while Hillsborough County schools were not interrupted. Pinellas County schools had some troubles but resumed testing midday. The difficulty was resolved by 11 a.m.

Education Department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said the state was "working with Pearson on additional mitigation strategies to prevent further issues."

They weren't the first.

In March, the debut of the Florida Standards Assessments stumbled as more than half the state's districts reported struggles to access the online writing tests. The state's primary testing vendor, American Institutes for Research, accepted some of the blame, with some going to an alleged "cyber attack" that remains under investigation.

In mid April, the FSA failed again after the same vendor made an unauthorized change to its systems that prevented children from logging in to their math and reading tests. The situation was fixed within a few hours, but many districts canceled testing for the day.

Such repeated problems intensified calls for the state to pause its fast-moving transition to a new accountability model. The Citrus County School Board, which did not have testing troubles Wednesday, sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter urging him to suspend the consequences associated with the test results.

"How can we say, 'Everything is fine. Count it all,'?" asked Citrus board Chairman Thomas Kennedy. "If we're saying that, I have some real questions about the facts of that."

State officials, by contrast, viewed the latest testing delay as unfortunate but not surprising.

"It doesn't shock me," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, a Pasco County Republican. "It's unfortunate. I will tell you it will probably happen again next year."

If the interruptions affect test validity, Legg said, the tests should be invalidated. The state will pay for an independent validity study this summer in which Wednesday's problems and other issues will be reviewed.

As schools and the state become more familiar with the systems, Legg suggested, they should be able to correct the problems.

University of Wisconsin researcher Gary Cook agreed that states should expect problems when rolling out computerized testing and said they should be prepared for the worst.

But other states have rolled out their tests more slowly than Florida to check for glitches and bugs, and then fix them rather than making major overhauls, said Cook, who has worked as both a testing vendor and a state testing director.

"When you throw everything in at once, why wouldn't you expect to have problems?" he asked.

He said it can be easier to withdraw money from a U.S. bank at an ATM in China than to test a student on a computer.

"The perspective and priorities are a bit backward," Cook said.

Even before this spring's testing began, school district superintendents questioned whether the infrastructure could handle the load. Early delays were manageable, they said, but later ones could cause difficulties in a tight testing calendar.

The latest event occurred with eight days remaining in the testing window.

Mark Butler, a testing supervisor for Pasco schools, said most schools should be able to deal with Wednesday's woes.

"There are makeup days," he said. "As long as there aren't successive days (of troubles), there is generally enough wiggle room."

The biggest issues could come for schools with high student-to-computer ratios, he said.

Etters said districts can request changes to the testing window. "As we have done in the past, we will afford them with the greatest flexibility possible based on their individual needs."

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

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