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Hundreds of math exams invalidated as Florida hits another school testing snag: wrong calculators

Hundreds of math exams have been invalidated as Florida hits another school testing snag: The wrong calculators were used.
Hundreds of math exams have been invalidated as Florida hits another school testing snag: The wrong calculators were used.
Published May 20, 2015

Adding to the growing list of miscues for Florida's school-testing system, nearly 800 Pasco County students had their state math end-of-course exams invalidated Tuesday because proctors gave them the wrong calculators.

The action affected every student who took the exams at Anclote High School. The same problem negated math test results for an unknown number of middle and high school students in at least 20 other counties across the state, including Pinellas.

But in an odd twist, the mistake won't matter for most students because of another surprise: The exams won't count toward their final grades.

The state announced that news late Monday, saying an independent validity study of the exams required under a new state law won't be complete in time for report cards. By law, the exams were to count for 30 percent of a student's grade in algebra I, algebra II and geometry.

Jeff Eakins, Hillsborough County's acting superintendent, announced Tuesday that the 45,000 students in his district affected by the decision will be given choices, including taking a district final exam instead, or using a state end-of-course exam grade from last semester.

"Our strategy is to provide options to students to ensure that they are not harmed by this decision," Eakins said.

The uncounted scores, which affect about 500,000 student exams statewide, and the unapproved calculators, added to a growing list of foul-ups in a testing season marred by problems. Reported cyberattacks on state testing servers, unauthorized server updates and log-in woes have added stress, uncertainty and wasted effort to this year's testing process.

The issues also revived a frequent refrain from educators, parents and others who warned over the last year that Florida was moving too quickly in its transition to a new education accountability system.

"The state has gone too far, too fast regarding the accountability and the deployment of this very new assessment, and I think we're seeing the consequences of that," Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Tuesday in Miami.

"They should have used this year as an experimental year, but they decided to move ahead in a way that would see the experimental year — the so-called baseline development year — as a true assessment year, and that was a mistake."

But unlike most of the issues that have plagued school testing this spring, the calculator miscues were not the state's fault.

The Florida Department of Education provided calculator rules to school districts in August, with an update in December. The three-page document details the things that calculators should and should not be able to do if students use them.

They can compute square roots, for instance, while they may not have graphing capabilities.

The state also provided online calculators for students taking the computerized exams. In Pasco's case, the district asked for permission to offer handheld calculators, rather than having to worry students about learning how to use the online version, Pasco school spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

The district bought approved four-function calculators and distributed them to all schools, she said. District investigators are looking into why they didn't get used.

In addition to the problem at Anclote High, about 30 Stewart Middle School students had their tests invalidated for using the wrong calculators, Cobbe said. More details in that case were not available.

Because of the state's decision to drop the end-of-course math exam results for final grades, most students won't have to retake those tests. But some still must pass the Algebra I exam as a graduation requirement and will need to take it again.

About 240 Anclote High teens fall into that category, Cobbe said.

In Pinellas County, about 69 Pinellas Park High students were given calculators with unapproved functions and had their Algebra II and geometry tests invalidated, spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said.

"There was some confusion," Wolf said. "In the past, the DOE had provided a list of calculators that were approved."

She said the Pinellas Park students will not have to retake the test.

In addition to using the wrong type of calculator, some students were allowed to use the devices on sections of the test where they weren't permitted.

That's what happened at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Pinellas, leading to the invalidation of several seventh-grade math exams.

A similar problem occurred in Monroe County, where dozens of students had their tests thrown out after getting calculators on the wrong portion of the exam.

Other districts that have reported problems with incorrect calculators are Broward, Dade, Gulf, Hamilton, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Martin, Okaloosa, Orange, Polk, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Lucie, Sumter and Suwannee.

Information from Times staff writer Marlene Sokol, the Key West Citizen and CBS Miami was used in this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at