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  1. The Education Gradebook

Some districts halt school testing for a third day, citing little confidence in state fixes

TAMPA — Some schools continued to report problems with computerized state tests on Tuesday, prompting at least three superintendents to shut down testing for a third consecutive day.

State education officials had tried to assure districts early Tuesday that Monday's software problems had been fixed. But superintendents from Miami-Dade, Broward and Leon counties said they were not comforted.

Among the counties that gave them reason to doubt: Hillsborough, where some schools reported problems logging on to the state server as they tried to administer a writing test for grades 8 through 10.

The uncertainty — coming after superintendents' repeated warnings that Florida's new testing system was not ready for prime time — is expected to spill into today's meeting of the Senate education committee.

The panel, chaired by state Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, will discuss a bill that would cut the number of school tests, limit the number of hours a student may spend taking them, and reduce the role test scores play in teacher evaluations.

Hillsborough was one of the few districts in Florida that decided to press ahead Tuesday with testing, hoping it would be free of the problems that surfaced Monday. But it was not to be.

"It's Groundhog Day," district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. "Several (schools) are having no problems. Others are calling in saying they have problems."

Hegarty said the district advised the latter group to discontinue for the day, and many schools did.

Pinellas County reported "slow loading" of exams Tuesday but said schools were going ahead with testing and the process would continue today.

Earlier Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart had said all was well. Her 7 a.m. memo announced that the state's testing vendor, American Institutes for Research, "has determined that a software issue caused log-in issues, including delays and error messages for a number of districts."

The problem was repaired and load tests showed improved performance.

Hours later, in a late-afternoon email to district officials, Stewart said AIR was continuing to iron out issues and the system would be tested again overnight.

She said she couldn't guarantee the system would be problem free today, but encouraged districts that have had success so far to resume testing.

Some districts decided not to risk it.

"We want the best possible testing environment for our students, and that will not occur if there is any doubt that students will be able to sign on and complete their tests," Leon County school superintendent Jackie Pons said in a statement announcing the suspension of tests today.

The state's two largest districts took the same action.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said on Facebook that the Florida Department of Education "has not yet provided districts with assurances on the stability of the testing environment."

Broward superintendent Robert Runcie simply tweeted, "Broward, Miami-Dade suspend online testing for third day."

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning, though frustrated with the system, said he decided to resume testing today. The decision was based on Stewart's assurances and the need to complete exams before spring break, which starts March 16.

"We have come to the conclusion that, no matter how long we wait, there will be issues with this computer-based test," Browning said. "So suspending tomorrow's exams would just be kicking the can down the road."

Given the week's events so far, legislators in Tallahassee already were abuzz with the testing issue as their 2015 session opened Tuesday.

State Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who chairs the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, called the glitches "unacceptable."

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said he was disappointed but not surprised.

"We've been saying for the last two years that districts are going to have difficulties because the infrastructure is not in place," he said.

Speaker of the House Steve Crisafulli acknowledged "legitimate concerns" about testing but said, "We will not retreat from accountability."

Two Democratic senators, meanwhile, urged Gov. Rick Scott to call off all testing to give educators more time to work through the problems.

Sens. Dwight Bullard of Miami and Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth called the first day of testing "nothing less than a disaster," and noted that warnings went unheeded.

Scott's office did not issue any such order.

Meanwhile, amid the hue and cry over computer testing, paper testing for lower grades continued in most districts.

"We're not having software problems with the paper tests," Hegarty quipped.

Kathleen McGrory of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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