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Are Florida schools ready for new computerized tests? Some say no

Megan Lipinczyk, right, a language arts teacher, helps fourth-grader Sai Chappadi, 10, while using new laptops Thursday at Turner/Bartels K-8 School in New Tampa. Officials are assessing whether servers can handle so many computers at once.
Megan Lipinczyk, right, a language arts teacher, helps fourth-grader Sai Chappadi, 10, while using new laptops Thursday at Turner/Bartels K-8 School in New Tampa. Officials are assessing whether servers can handle so many computers at once.
Published Feb. 15, 2015

LAND O'LAKES

Sitting in a tiny conference room Thursday, Chris Jackson and Dustin Lester focused on a series of green-and-white bar charts. Their task: Determine whether 22,500 computers — all talking at once to Florida's testing website — would cripple the Pasco school district's online operations.

"I don't know why you would want to watch this," said Jackson, a district technology supervisor. "It's not very interesting."

Maybe. But the "load test" plays a critical role in the run-up to the March 2 debut of untried, mostly computerized new tests in Florida.

The work will help answer a key question as parents, educators and lawmakers raise dire concerns about the upcoming spring testing season: Will the schools be ready?

Readiness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart has pointedly told lawmakers that school districts have said since 2011 they're able to handle the demand and are prepared now. The latest load tests in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, among others, appear to back her up.

Testing contractor American Institutes for Research conducted its own simulation in January, too. Again, no problems.

But Sen. Bill Montford, who also runs the state superintendents association, contends there's more to the issue than Internet bandwidth and computer availability.

"Quite frankly, it's how the question is asked," said Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat. "If I were a superintendent, I would be reluctant to certify my district as ready."

He questioned the load tests, suggesting the effort proves little and didn't prevent servers from dropping schools mid-test last year. He also decried that computer testing has made it difficult for schools to use the machines for lessons, which he said should be their prime function.

Montford's doubts prompted him to file a bill to let schools offer paper tests — something Stewart says the state does not support — until they certify their readiness for "successful implementation and deployment."

Senate Education chairman John Legg, a Trinity Republican, has put in another bill that would remove school consequences associated with the spring results if districts demonstrate specific problems administering the Florida Standards Assessments.

"I am not operating under the premise that we're going to have massive widespread problems," Legg said. "I do expect isolated issues. Our current statutes don't have a release valve to deal with those problems."

He said he wanted to be sure schools that have made changes to be ready are not penalized, while those that struggle to reach the goal are not hurt, either.

"As of this point, we have not seen a Plan B developed by the commissioner," Legg said of Stewart. "And, to put it bluntly, we don't know what we don't know when it comes to rolling this out."

Worst-case scenarios are circulating. They include disrupted classes, unprepared students and another credibility blow to the state's school accountability system.

"This continuous climate of never-ending testing, running children in and out of the few rooms with computers, all day, for eight weeks, creates a continuous disruption of instruction and maintains an aura of testing that permeates each member of the school family, including the teachers, students, and parents, that make it seem like everybody is testing for months," Hillsborough testing director Sam Whitten wrote to colleagues.

"Get the infrastructure in place. Give the whole darn thing in four to nine mornings, again, and the testing climate will return to (the level) we were accustomed to."

State Sen. Dwight Bullard spoke of schools that are so busy coping with basic needs they are not up to speed on technology.

Though it would be nice to live in "the age of Jetsons," he said, "we still have Floridians living in the age of the Flinstones." A Democrat who represents poor communities such as Immokalee, Bullard said some schools "can't afford the technological ask" the state has put in place.

If the state doesn't deal with such realities, "we fear the entire accountability system that we support is in jeopardy," Nassau County superintendent John Ruis wrote to Stewart last week.

Ruis, president of the state superintendents association, listed several problems that give him pause, including: the possibility of computer viruses, troubles logging into a system no one has used, poor student computer skills and difficulty accessing digital textbooks.

"To administer an untried assessment and attach such high stakes on the first administration is highly questionable," he wrote.

In letters to senators, Stewart noted districts received millions of dollars for technology upgrades through federal Race to the Top grants, and they've been required to teach keyboarding and other computer skills since 2006.

Further, she said, the state and its testing contractors have plans in place to cope with any large-scale failures of the system.

Legg said he has seen superintendents report their readiness to the state education department, only to "whisper in our ears they're not ready."

If that's the case, he said, the time has come for district leaders to offer more than complaints.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning plans to do just that. In addition to submitting results from the district's 30-minute load test, he's preparing an "addendum" to answer some of the lawmakers' questions.

"I would encourage the superintendents to come up with their solutions now," Legg said. "We are at a point where we have to start making decisions."

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