1. The Education Gradebook

Steady push to computerize the FCAT spells strain for schools

Computerized FCAT testing reaches into the elementary schools for the first time next week, continuing its slow spread from the high schools downward since 2010.

State officials decided to go this route back in 2007, stressing the need for quicker test results and more advanced technology.

Those goals, however, are butting heads with reality as schools struggle through the complex process of preparing for the change and fitting the added expense into their budgets.

Computerized testing takes longer than paper versions because schools have a limited number of computers, forcing them to schedule students in waves rather than all at once.

The situation is expected to worsen as more tests go online. This year, the state added computerized U.S. history end-of-course exams for high schools and is field-testing a computerized civics exam for middle schools, in addition to fifth-graders taking their FCAT math on computers. Next year, sixth-grade math and eighth-grade reading join the mix.

When new tests associated with the Common Core State Standards arrive — scheduled for 2015 — all of them will be on computers. And they'll take twice as long as the FCAT, according to state education department estimates.

That concern is driving legislation in the Florida Senate, where Sen. John Legg. R-Trinity, is pushing a bill to halt the move to new tests until all schools and districts have the technology necessary for a smooth transition. It has faced little opposition.

Already, the testing transformation has affected schooling.

"If we're using a computer for testing, then we're not using it for instruction," said Peggy Jones, Pasco County director of accountability, research and measurement. "We don't have enough to do both."

Seven Oaks Elementary in Wesley Chapel didn't have enough computers to do the testing properly, technology specialist Susan Thomas said.

When she learned the school would be testing online, she checked her inventory. The school, which enrolls about 975 students, had just 32 desktop computers robust enough to run the testing programs.

"They sent us 101 brand new machines in January," Thomas said. And since that time, she's been preparing them.

The computers' operating system, for instance, had settings that were incompatible with the testing software created by Pearson, the company that runs testing for the state. Thomas and others continue to find those settings and turn them off, "so no kids get knocked out of the tests."

Schools also have tried to familiarize students with the system. Kids aren't able to log in for the FCAT until they've registered and taken a practice run.

"It shows them the environment they'll be testing in, it shows them how to move the pages forward and backward, the online calculator," said Bill Lawrence, an associate superintendent in Pinellas County.

Students also have taken other computer tests, such as the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR), for a couple of years now.

"We have enough computers," Hillsborough school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said, adding that fifth-graders have been taught keyboarding skills and can use a mouse.

Fifth-graders at Schwarzkopf Elementary School in northwest Hillsborough said they had mixed feelings about taking the FCAT math test online.

"I think it will be really cool," Zachary Von Bergen, 11, said over cafeteria breakfast Friday morning. "I like computers."

But Adam Fischel, 10, added, "It just gets confusing a little bit. There are so many buttons you have to do. On paper, it's right in front of you."

The big issue is that it's different, said Jackson Miller, 11. "But you get used to it after a while."

At middle and high schools, the testing takes on a bigger dimension because it involves more students and more exams.

The staff at West Hernando Middle in Brooksville has been working on a game plan since summer, principal Carmine Rufa said. It involves spreading out computerized testing as much as possible to avoid problems.

"We're testing fewer kids each day so we don't have to worry about tests crashing or going slow," he said.

About 500 West Hernando students will test on computers in the coming weeks.

"The only problem is you run into scheduling conflicts," said Alex Rastatter, the school's assessment coordinator. "It's not like you can say, 'Everybody test on the computer at the same time.' "

With FCAT, end-of-course exams, and the state Postsecondary Education Readiness Test all going on, high schools face issues on an even larger scale.

Wiregrass Ranch High assistant principal Robyn White said her campus of 2,000 students is trying to conduct testing without disrupting classes too much. But they've come to realize that from Monday until the end of the school year, some students will be testing almost every day.

Times staff writers Lisa Gartner, Marlene Sokol and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.