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Florida taking another stab at getting computerized testing right

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the state and testing vendor American Institutes for Research have taken steps to better support the Florida Standards Assessments.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the state and testing vendor American Institutes for Research have taken steps to better support the Florida Standards Assessments.
Published Apr. 13, 2015

Here they go again.

After a couple weeks off to catch their breath, Florida schools and students warily return to computerized testing today. District leaders have their fingers crossed for a better experience than the first go-around.

That's when students across the state struggled to access the online system, with several getting knocked out midway through their exams. Schools postponed testing as troubles mounted, while the Department of Education searched for solutions with its testing vendor, American Institutes for Research.

"They've had a month. They've had a lot of political pressure. There may be a chance that they do better," said Octavio Salcedo, director of assessment and accountability for Pinellas County Schools. "It seems 50-50 right now."

With more students taking more tests than last time, Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins suggested it's a "whole new ball game" on the question of whether the system will buckle again. And if it does, St. Lucie schools assistant superintendent John Lynch said, the effect could quickly magnify.

"The second round of (computer-based) testing is so tight, we do not have the luxury of realigning schedules to provide additional time for anticipated glitches," said Lynch, whose schools experienced interruptions every day of the first assessment window last month.

The second round of the Florida Standards Assessments will test grades 5-10 in language arts and grades 5-8 in math.

Some state officials have downplayed the struggles that schools faced during the FSA on writing. Using DOE statistics, House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Marlene O'Toole said Thursday that the "supposed epidemic" of testing problems was not real.

Just 663 students, or 0.1 percent of online test-takers, reported difficulties in completing the exam to AIR, O'Toole said. Of those, only 321 could not finish at all.

"We have more out with the flu than that on the average day," she quipped.

Commissioner Pam Stewart noted that some districts, such as Hernando County, had few issues with the online exams. And all told, she added, most students successfully completed their tests.

But the problems were real, she said, and the department and AIR have taken steps to improve the platforms that undergird the Florida Standards Assessments. They've amped up security in case of another cyberattack like the "distributed denial of service" attack that reportedly occurred late in the first week of the writing test.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement continues to investigate that case.

The Education Department and AIR also have bolstered the help desk to deal with problems more immediately, added firewalls and fixed the issues that made it difficult to log in. They've run additional simulations and tests to ensure the system can handle the constant, increased demand.

"AIR is prepared for that kind of load," Stewart said.

She expressed confidence that statewide testing glitches would not recur.

"We don't necessarily expect it to be perfect, but I am hopeful that it will be," Stewart said, adding quickly: "I worry when I say that I am going to jinx us all."

Many details of the state's preparations have not made their way to school districts.

"I don't know what AIR has done since the original writing (test) to try to prevent this," said Gisela Feild, Miami-Dade schools assessment director. "The commissioner said they are ready to go. We have not heard anything different. We have to have faith."

Just in case, though, the districts intend to take some precautions, too.

Miami-Dade, for instance, has scheduled a slow start to testing on Monday, while waiting to see if the white screens, failed log-ins and other woes reappear.

That way, Feild said, "if things do occur, it doesn't bring down thousands of kids at once." If the morning session goes well, the district can quickly ramp up.

School-based leaders and testing coordinators, meanwhile, have continued to prepare for the worst. They've reviewed procedures for issues such as frozen computers, and improved their own communication networks to quickly react to troubles.

All the while, they aim to not lose sight of preparing students as if nothing bad will happen.

"Students by and large know there have been hiccups with the connectivity," said David Salerno, principal of Pasco Rushe Middle School, where some eighth-graders could not access their writing tests for more than a day after starting. "We don't really have to announce that."

Because the majority of issues that hit the writing test did not originate on the districts' end, leaders said they don't know of much else they can do — besides hope all will go well.

"I'm trying to be optimistic that we'll get on and be able to test kids and move on," Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Until things run smoothly, though, it's best to remain cautious, he and others agreed.

"Technology is sort of a box of surprises," Miami-Dade's Feild said. "You just don't ever know."

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

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