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Online testing system fails again; angry state official calls glitches 'unacceptable'

An error displayed on computers in the Alachua County School District was similar to those displayed Monday morning on screens around the state.
Published Apr. 21, 2015

Florida's new computerized tests ran into another round of problems Monday, drawing heightened concerns about their validity and bringing a hail of we-told-you-sos from teachers, parents and school officials.

A technical blunder prevented students from logging on early in the day to take their Florida Standards Assessments in language arts and math.

By midmorning, the Florida Department of Education announced the problem had been corrected. But it was too late for many districts — including Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and Leon counties — which already had canceled testing for the day and hoped to try again today.

Hillsborough and Pasco counties were among the districts that continued to test after the problems were fixed.

The malfunction marked the second big setback in two months for the state's new testing system, which has been under fire for months. It also brought a stern response from Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who blamed the state's testing vendor and said she had "many, many adjectives to describe what I am feeling today — exasperated, frustrated, dismayed, angry. I could go on and on."

Stewart said the vendor, American Institutes for Research, known as AIR, made a technical change over the weekend that was never approved by her department and was not needed for FSA exams. She called the action "unacceptable" and said Florida would hold AIR accountable "for the disruption they have caused the state."

AIR said the problem stemmed from human error and it was reviewing its procedures. A nonprofit that describes itself as "one of the world's largest behavioral and social science research and evaluation organizations," the group apologized and took full responsibility.

Parent and teacher groups were quick to respond.

The president of the state teachers union, Andy Ford of the Florida Education Association, called on Gov. Rick Scott to suspend testing for the rest of the year so the state could address "connectivity issues" and concerns over validity.

The state PTA said in an e-mail blast that the disruption had called into question "the reliability of the FSA test," and it urged its members to call Scott. "Our children deserve better than this," the e-mail said.

Colleen Wood, founder of the group 50th No More, urged the governor to "intervene and immediately hold students and teachers harmless from this mess of a testing system." Other groups issued the same call.

"What reasonable adult can defend the FSA as a valid measure of student growth or teacher effectiveness?" Wood asked. "It is only proof of the disaster caused when politics drives education policy."

School district leaders said earlier this month they could ill afford delays such as those that plagued the FSA writing tests in March. Students had difficulty logging into those tests, and some were knocked out midway through their responses. Some were unable to return to their tests for a day or more, although most ultimately finished.

This time, with more students taking more exams, the room for schedule changes shrank, testing coordinators from several districts said. Most padded their time at the front end of last week, hoping any interruptions would happen early.

After what turned out to be a trouble-free week, school officials were optimistic the system was on solid footing.

But Monday began with problems on AIR's login server, which was supposed to be working by 8:30 a.m. When it failed, students were sent back to their classrooms until the problem could be resolved.

Stewart said she would consider extending the testing window a few days beyond May 8 to make up for the delays.

Testing has been a top issue in Tallahassee, where lawmakers this month passed a bill suspending school grades and teacher evaluations until the FSA exams undergo an independent review. Scott added his signature last week.

But parents and teachers have complained the measure doesn't go far enough. Both groups had implored the Legislature to use this year's test results for diagnostic purposes only. Even before Monday, they were calling on Scott to suspend all high-stakes consequences for the 2014-15 school year — something the governor appears unlikely to do.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, pointed to a provision in the bill allowing Florida to collect predetermined damages from AIR in the event of problems. He said Stewart should pursue those payments "if in fact they did do technical changes without permission."

Legg said Monday's troubles highlighted the need for the independent review included in the legislation.

But he continued to disagree with those demanding that Florida suspend its education accountability system.

"I fundamentally think we need to move forward," Legg said. "I have five kids and some of them are at schools. I know what they would do, going into a test, if they knew it didn't count."

Criticism of the system is likely to resurface in light of the latest developments.

A Senate panel is scheduled to discuss classroom technology today.

The issue lit up the Facebook pages of activist groups such as Opt-Out Orlando, where parents shared their stories and their discontent with a system they view as unneeded and overbearing.

"Oh my. What a hot mess they have on their hands," Ismary Jorro of South Florida wrote.

Florida is not the only state to struggle with problems associated with tests aligned to the new Common Core State Standards.

Nevada, one of 21 states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, postponed testing after facing technical troubles. Montana also had problems with Smarter Balanced tests, and allowed districts to cancel testing.

Kathleen McGrory of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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