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  1. Education

Latest glitches erode confidence in students' online testing

Just last week, some students in Florida had issues logging in online to take the Florida Standards Assessments.
Published Apr. 27, 2015

Florida faces a confidence crisis in its annual testing program.

Last week, for the second time in two months, the computerized system crashed, the result of avoidable vendor errors. The upshot has been heightened challenges to Florida's 15-year-old accountability model.

Parents and education advocates question whether the state pushed online testing before its time. They argue that the test's validity is damaged and are calling for the state to remove all consequences for students, teachers and schools if it won't pause testing altogether.

Some wonder whether the problems might have been avoided had Florida not abandoned the testing consortium it helped create and lead.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers launched its tests this spring outside Florida, with almost no technical troubles.

Had the state taken the time to ease into the new Florida Standards Assessments, which replaced the FCAT, there might be fewer complaints, said Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego.

"This all would be a little bit easier if we had a planned transition period," Grego said.

Instead, the turmoil continues.

State lawmakers have mandated an independent study of the tests to determine whether they're valid and can be used for accountability purposes.

Dubious parents, bolstered by experts, contend the state should detach consequences from the new test. They say there's no room to account for academic growth or other variables, such as computer troubles.

"In the early rounds, they need to back off high-stakes interpretive use of the scores," said Jim Pellegrino of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The results "may not be representative of actual performance."

Despite demands to make paper tests available, lawmakers did not offer that option.

"I am firmly in the camp of computerized testing," said Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.

Glitches happen, he said. But that doesn't mean testing needs to remain in the 20th century. Paper tests have problems, too, after all.

The new law governing the tests included penalties for American Institutes for Research, the vendor that supplied the FSA tests. Education Department spokeswoman Meghan Collins said the department had yet to determine its next steps.

"At this time, we are focused on ensuring testing continues smoothly," she said. "Once testing is complete, the Department of Education will determine a course of action to hold AIR accountable for the disruptions students experienced."

Meanwhile, questions persist about whether Florida made a misstep in leaving the PARCC consortium.

In 2013, the consortium faced some serious concerns. It hadn't written its tests yet and its financial footing was uncertain. No one knew whether its results would be available in time to make decisions.

"There were just too many unknowns at that point," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

As Senate president, Gaetz joined House speaker Will Weatherford in July 2013 and urged then-state education commissioner Tony Bennett to withdraw from the consortium.

"Our schools, teachers, and families have worked too hard for too long for our system to collapse under the weight of an assessment system that is not yet developed, designed nor tested," the leaders wrote.

Gov. Rick Scott dropped PARCC in September. The education department chose AIR to provide its tests six months later.

Complaints about Florida Standards Assessments have been similar. Superintendents, for instance, have observed the exam was not field-tested in Florida.

Was the switch a mistake? Views vary.

Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute education think tank, said Florida should have stuck with PARCC and should keep its options open moving forward.

Florida gave up comparability of results among states, which bothered Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning, who also preferred PARCC.

Gaetz, by contrast, argued that PARCC was not a good option two years ago, or now.

That doesn't mean AIR is better, Gaetz said. "There were other choices that had stronger track records."

Activists said neither inspired much confidence.

"I'm not sure which is worse. Our students waiting, sometimes in vain, hours to log in to the FSA? Or working hours on inappropriately long passages, as evidenced by leaked (PARCC) exams," said Jinia Parker, a Clearwater education advocate.

Added Bob Schaeffer, the Florida-based public education director for FairTest: "Both PARCC and FSA have turned out to be mediocre tests, ineptly administered, and used with unjustified high-stakes. So, in standardized testing parlance, the 'right' answer is 'None of the Above'!"

Kathleen Oropeza of Orlando-based Fund Education Now said she hoped the state would refocus in the direction Bennett and others looked when questions about PARCC first emerged.

"We can wonder about PARCC," she said, "but the bigger question is, What is stopping us from using nationally proven, cost-effective, normed tests like Iowa Basic Skills, Stanford, ACT and SAT?"

The Seminole and Marion school boards have said they're looking in that direction. More are likely to follow.

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

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