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Florida officials say cyberattacks caused some school testing problems

A message beginning “Sorry! You’re not allowed into this system!” was part of the error message students at Tampa Bay Technical High School in Tampa got on their screens as Florida struggled to implement its new computerized school testing system last week.
Published Mar. 10, 2015

Cyberattacks were at least partially to blame for last week's problem-plagued rollout of the new Florida Standards Assessments, the state education department said Monday.

The test provider, American Institutes for Research, conceded that the attacks had caused delays for some eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders attempting to take the writing portion of the online exam. But a company spokesman said no student data was compromised.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said her department was working with law enforcement "to ensure they identify the bad actors and hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

Students across the state had complained about blank white screens while testing Thursday. Those white screens, the education department now says, were part of an attack intended to prevent access to the tests.

The blank screens weren't the only difficulties Florida students encountered. Earlier in the week, thousands had trouble accessing the testing platform — and were booted off the system in the middle of their exams.

Those problems were unrelated to the cyberattack.

Apart from the statewide issues, Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning said his district had been hacked twice — once before the official start of testing, and once after.

"It obviously concerns me," Browning told the Times/Herald. "I like to think that any system we're using, particularly with testing, should be secure."

It's not clear whether the earlier attacks in Pasco were the same type of threat that was aimed at the state, or if the same actors were behind it.

Browning said he was working with state education and law enforcement officials to minimize the potential for more attacks as testing continues over the next few weeks.

The attacks are likely to add to the chorus of educators and parents calling for this year's test results to be used for informational purposes only, and not in high-stakes decisions such as whether students get promoted or teachers get to keep their jobs.

"There were suggestions made early on that this would be a great year to get the bugs out and really understand what the challenges would be," said Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego, who has advocated for using the results as a baseline.

Florida Education Association president Andy Ford — who repeatedly had said the state wasn't ready to deploy the new tests — called Thursday's news shocking.

"If it's true … it just shows that not only weren't you ready, but you are vulnerable to the outside world," he said. "The (Department of Education) really needs to take a look at what they've done and what they built, and try to make sure that in the future it can't be attacked."

State House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole, a Lady Lake Republican, declined to comment on the investigation, saying she needed more information.

But Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the committee, said the attacks raised serious questions about online testing.

"We need a strong system in place for our students to make sure that they are assessed appropriately," Williams said. "It begs the questions that many Democrats and Republicans have asked, which is: What's wrong with a piece of paper and a pencil?"

Williams, who has echoed concerns from parents that students face too many tests, had his own theory.

"It could have been a student who was upset with the fact that he was taking too many tests," he quipped. "Maybe he hacked the system."

Kansas experienced a similar attack last year when launching standardized tests, using a different provider than Florida. The difference: Kansas caught the issue during a pilot run of the tests, a spokeswoman at the Kansas State Department of Education said.

Florida's new test — glitches and all — will count toward high-stakes decisions. The potentially dire consequences have prompted some Florida parents to boycott the tests. Among their concerns has been the amount of data that is collected on students through testing. Though AIR and the state stressed that student data was protected, parents are wary.

"Right now, this seems like another excuse," said Colleen Wood, a parent activist from St. Johns County. "The integrity of the test has been compromised, and Commissioner Stewart needs to admit it."

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he was disappointed in the vendor.

"But just because you had someone attack you doesn't mean you should retreat (from online testing)," he said. "We have to move forward, learn from this and put more safeguards in place."

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