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When state testing goes awry, here's how it feels to the kids

Ninth-graders at Land O’Lakes High wait to get started Wednesday on the new writing test that is part of the Florida Standards Assessments. Earlier in the week, Pasco County Schools suspended testing after the system malfunctioned.
Ninth-graders at Land O’Lakes High wait to get started Wednesday on the new writing test that is part of the Florida Standards Assessments. Earlier in the week, Pasco County Schools suspended testing after the system malfunctioned.
Published Mar. 7, 2015

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Tech freshman Jude Cineas didn't have high hopes as he sat for his state writing exam on Tuesday morning.

New computer systems rarely work well, he reasoned.

So as he began typing his answers, after more than an hour spent reading passages and gathering thoughts, Jude kept saving his work — just in case.

"When I got up to the middle of my third paragraph, two students said their computers logged off, just froze," he recalled. "I clicked save and continued writing."

Then, "like popcorn," other students' hands flew up. They, too, were bumped out.

"I was the second to last person the computer turned off on," said Jude, one of more than 100,000 students who endured Florida's rocky transition to a new testing system last week.

The problems started Monday.

Widespread malfunctions left thousands of teens unable to start or complete their exams. Counties continued to report setbacks through Friday, even as state officials said all was well.

Through it all, state officials and advocacy groups issued news releases. Legislators made speeches and advanced bills. Superintendents complained. But largely absent from the debate were the test-takers who, given the chance in interviews, had plenty to say about what happened and how it affected them.

When the wheels came off in Jude's class, the proctor told the 19 teens to sit tight while she called in a computer specialist.

"She said we were experiencing technical difficulties with the (Florida Standards Assessments) system," classmate Jane'e Codner related.

Those difficulties didn't go away when the kids got the green light to try again, though.

"We had to log in again, but the system wasn't working," Jane'e said.

The students gave up and returned to class after repeated attempts were met by an error message saying, "Sorry! You're not allowed into this system." They did not know what would happen next with their exams.

Freshman Magdiel Cepero said the state should have been better prepared.

"We've been preparing for this for some time now," he said. "It's shocking to see that it just froze and completely stopped."

Jude agreed.

"The state said it was ready," he said. "They failed, and now it's our (problem)."

Even before the FSA began, superintendents warned that the system was not ready. They urged a go-slow approach.

Their predictions came true within the first two hours. Teachers couldn't access the state testing platform, meaning students couldn't log in.

The more kids that tried to take the exam, the further burdened the system became. State officials and their vendors said they would find and fix the errors — a slow process over days — but the damage was done.

Several districts temporarily halted computerized testing, saying they didn't trust it to work properly. And that, they said, was not fair to students.

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Not every student suffered.

After facing initial glitches, more than half of eligible eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders had successfully completed their writing exam after four days, with few if any troubles.

Anusha Chandrasheka, an eighth-grader at Rushe Middle School in Land O'Lakes, said her class couldn't access the FSA for a short while Monday. But once they got in, "we had no other problems."

The story from a few rooms away came to dominate attention, though.

Rushe eighth-grader Samantha Soriano had just finished her essay when a message flashed across her computer screen.

"It gave us this notification that we had to reset the test, log out and log back in," she said. "We did. It brought us to this white screen and we couldn't do anything."

About two dozen students had the same thing happen.

"I was really hoping I didn't have to redo it," eighth-grader Wyatt Jarvis said.

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told lawmakers that students who had this occur could later pick up where they left off.

The students naturally worried whether their work had been saved. Some couldn't retrieve anything.

Samantha and Wyatt discovered their writing intact when they returned Wednesday. They submitted their work and sat until the period ended.

But Samantha raised a concern that many adults shared: Students who were stopped mid-test could go home and study or practice.

"That could be a problem," she said.

Stewart said she did not expect this to happen.

"We always encourage students not to be sharing," she said. "There are different prompts so students would never know which one they are receiving when they go in."

Gary Cook, former Wisconsin state assessment director, said the effect of these delays required a closer look.

Students who had extra time might benefit, compared with those who had only one attempt to complete the exam, noted Cook, now a University of Wisconsin researcher. Or, they might suffer because they lost momentum.

"I think it is incumbent upon the state — and incumbent upon the vendor — to pay for a study of this," Cook said. "You'd have to assure me those test scores are equivalent."

After being kicked off the FSA, Jude, the Tampa Bay Tech freshman, said he would prefer to just have his test thrown out and let other materials demonstrate his skill level. Maybe that would help relieve the pressure adults place on students over state testing.

"They talk about it so much. They put so much pressure on us," he said. "We feel like one little mistake can make us fail."

Throwing out the test also would let kids get back to their courses, added his classmate Jane'e.

"I have a lot of work," she said. "It's very important not to miss it."

They had nothing against testing.

It's a fine way to see what students know, Jude said, and even to grade school performance.

"It challenges us to be better in every way," said Magdiel, his classmate. "We should approach it wanting to do it, because it will make us better as students."

Heading into spring break, though, these freshmen had yet to resume their essays.

"I have not heard back from the state how to proceed for the students who lost their work," assistant principal Jennifer Sparano said. "We still have the week after spring break to test, so I'm hoping we will know by then."

Jane'e, who felt good about her effort before the screen froze, was less than thrilled.

"The feeling is just unstable," she said. "You go in there ready to test, and you test, and this big crash comes. You are so ready and confident. It's kind of upsetting for us."

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

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