When students from Key West to Pensacola tried to log on to the state’s new and supposedly improved tests for the first time last week, all the dire predictions of school leaders, teachers unions and parents came true.
"Catastrophic meltdown," was how the superintendent of Florida's largest school district, Miami-Dade’s Alberto Carvalho, characterized the rollout of the computerized tests.
With slow and sporadic performance lasting for much of the week, the Florida Department of Education came under criticism for its handling of the debacle. The problems — echoing the glitch-marred ObamaCare website debut — also emboldened critics who have consistently complained that the state is moving too fast in implementing new assessments.
Large districts, like the ones in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, are particularly concerned that a second round of testing in April could prove more disastrous. More students will be taking math tests that require even more computing power to create number lines and drag-and-drop items on the screen.
Never miss a local story.
“I’m worried that if we can’t deploy what we consider a much simpler computer platform, then what will happen in April?” said Gisela Feild, Miami-Dade’s administrative director of assessment, research and data analysis. “It’s exponential, in terms of what the system will have to provide for.”
State education leaders did not respond to multiple requests for comment but the department has blamed the ongoing technical problems on the test provider American Institutes for Research, which Commissioner Pam Stewart revealed late last week was still tinkering on the eve of the first tests.
“What happened was AIR did an update to their system the day before testing began,” Stewart explained to a Florida House of Representatives education committee. “Admittedly that was the wrong timing and it caused them some issues with data retrieval.”
In an email to the Miami Herald, the company took “full responsibility” for the issues.
“Once we were able to identify the problem, we promptly resolved it and we are pleased that Florida remains on track to complete testing during the initial two-week window,” a company spokesman wrote.
For critics, the stumbling beginning was far from surprising. From the start, they’ve warned that the state’s process of adopting new, tougher education standards — and the standardized tests to go along with them — was rushed and mired in politics.
Florida had initially planned to use assessments being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — based on the controversial “Common Core” standards. But in 2013, amid protests from Tea Party groups about federal overreach in education, Gov. Rick Scott ordered Florida to withdraw from the multi-state consortium and create its own tests.
That process to replace the old Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) began in earnest in early 2014, with Florida scrambling to find a vendor. The new tests were rebranded the Florida Standards Assessment.
“It left everybody in a state of chaos,” said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group Fund Education Now. “I really don’t think anything was done in the interest of what’s best for children.”
With less than 18 months until the new tests were scheduled to debut, the Department of Education put out a call for proposals.
A non-profit called American Institutes for Research, or AIR, was one of five testing vendors competing for the $220-million, six-year Florida contact.
Observers expected the contract to go to Pearson. The testing industry giant had donated to former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, and Bush's influence still loomed large over the Florida Department of Education.
But a five-member Department of Education team tasked with recommending a vendor chose AIR unanimously over Pearson and other industry leaders. The big selling points: AIR was less expensive than some of the other companies — and promised to work on a faster time line.
Time was of the essence because there were mere months to go until Florida's hundreds of thousands of school children would have to sit for high-stakes tests that decide whether they could move up to the next grade or even graduate — and dictate raises for their teachers.
By pulling questions that AIR had already developed for other states, Florida could roll out a brand new test without a single student having to try out the exams first.
AIR, known more for its behavioral and social-science research, did have some testing experience. It had smaller testing contracts in nine states — Delaware, Hawaii, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah — and had been working with a different consortium on Common Core tests.
But the company also had some baggage. In Minnesota, the bungled roll out of their computerized tests led to nasty behind-the scenes finger pointing between AIR and the department of education, according to news reports. The state blamed AIR for poor customer service, while AIR said the state had asked for work not included in their contract.
When the contract was up, AIR did not bid on again. The company did not address questions about the issue.
Education Commissioner Stewart approved the AIR recommendation in March 2014 — one year before the scheduled start of testing.
Concerns surfaced immediately, including many technical ones.
School chiefs also said one year was not enough time to develop, vet and roll out the software and hardware needed for a critical statewide assessment. In a letter to the education commissioner, Bay County Superintendent William Husfelt wrote about a foretelling experience: A demonstration of the new testing portal at a August 2014 conference for district assessment coordinators was canceled because the system crashed.
“Those on the front line are PETRIFIED!” Husfelt wrote. “There is too much weighing on these assessments to do this incorrectly and with such recklessness.”
One by one last week, districts across the state aborted the testing. It took impossibly long for students to sign in, and others were booted off the system in the middle of writing essays.
For five days, Stewart assured school districts that bugs had been worked out and testing could continue.
“They’ve lost credibility. Parents are really, totally frustrated,” said Mindy Gould, advocacy chair for Miami-Dade County PTA.
After the first two days of testing flaws, Florida Democratic Sens. Dwight Bullard of Miami and Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth wrote a letter to Scott calling of the suspension of the exams and blasting the education department’s handling of the situation “misleading.”
Beyond the bugs, some school districts are concerned about fairness. Some students saw test prompts before getting kicked off and returned for another day of testing. Others may have rushed through the exams for fear of the system malfunctioning.
“If you’re having issues with something as mundane as the technical readiness of the state, should you not also have questions about validity and reliability?” Carvalho asked.
Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.