Broward County

Fred Grimm: Florida flunked the tests and failed the kids

We’re now in week two of Florida’s monumental school testing meltdown, a mighty misadventure in software failures supposedly followed by — though who the hell knows if this is true — crippling attacks from computer hackers.

The only reliable results any sane person can glean from this latest testing debacle is that the Florida Department of Education has utterly failed Florida’s students, teachers, school districts, parents and anyone who cares about public education. And an “F” also goes to the American Institutes for Research, the private vendor awarded a $220 million, six-year contract to cobble together this shoddy rush job.

Of course, the consequences of an inept roll-out of this latest incarnation of high stakes scholastic tests, the Florida Standards Assessment, fall mainly on the heads of students and teachers.

Astoundingly, Gov. Rick Scott, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and the Republican leadership in the state Legislature continue to pretend that whatever results these problem-plagued computerized tests yield, they’re fair assessments of student achievement.

Imagine a 10th grade kid coming into class on test day, already stressing out, knowing his high school graduation hinges on test scores. He tries to log on. He can’t. Or he logs on, begins to take the test, but the computer crashes. Or the server fails. Some kids managed, amid the fits and starts, to finish the test on the allotted day. Others had to return and try again the next day. Some returned to a partially finished test. Other began anew.

I can personally attest that when the Herald’s famously fickle computer system knocks me off the network on deadline, the quality of my work deteriorates in howls of profanity. Except our techies don’t pretend that all has gone swimmingly.

Thousands of students in at least three dozen school districts suffered these intermittent computer failures. Yet their scores will be measured against results from schools and districts that weren’t up against these problems. Commissioner Pam Stewart, testifying last week before a state Senate education committee, said that the integrity of the results is dandy. At least I think that’s what she meant when she said, “We are certain that the content of the test is absolutely psychometrically valid and reliable.”

Perhaps Stewart could employ psychometrics to measure the frustration of school teachers, whose raises and perhaps their continued employment hinge on the outcome of this testing fiasco. Test scores belched out by computers that were outfitted with faulty software and breached by hackers — over and over again, according to the DOE — provide the basis for half the teacher performance evaluations. “If nothing is changed in the next 60 days by the Florida Legislature, this mess will provide the baseline for next year’s teacher salaries,” Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade, told me Wednesday afternoon.

It’s not just the teachers’ unions begging legislators to take a time-out and fix the glitches before students, teachers and schools are subjected to the punitive consequences of unreliable testing. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who called the testing regime “catastrophic,” asked the state for a two-year moratorium before forcing school districts to take these lousy numbers seriously.

Ingram and Carvalho support standard test assessments — just not this ill-considered version. But the controversy has given the state’s growing anti-testing activists an issue sure to rally others to join their cause.

When the DOE attributed this week’s computer problems to hackers, rather than failed software, parents like Suzette Lopez, a leader of the Miami-Dade faction of the “opt out” anti-testing movement, had their doubts. “When the latest issue of ‘the hack’ was reported, the first gut reaction from parents was that of complete distrust in the initial reports,” she wrote for an op-ed column. “It was palpable. You could feel the universal eye rolls across the state. Parents felt like it was just another excuse to explain away the issues that occurred earlier in the week.”

Though failing to anticipate outside hackers hardly seems like much of an excuse. I talked to Brian Krebs, the former Washington Post reporter who runs the investigative security website KrebsonSecurity. He said young hackers with only minimal skills can overwhelm a computer system and cause the “denial of service” problems that the DOE claims shut down the testing server this week. “They can decide to knock you off line to impress their friends or avoid having to do work or to take a test,” Krebs said. “It has become the modern equivalent of pulling the fire alarm.”

Krebs said there are no shortages of shady operators out there in cyberspace selling black market programs, known as booters, that allow some miscreant to hack a system. “They’re very cheap,” he said. “Someone with a PayPal account or Bitcoins can buy a program for $30. All they do is hit ‘go’ and they can shut down the system for an extended period of time.”

This is not a secret development. The mystery here is that a national computer testing service worthy of a $220 million contract, about to introduce a controversial and often hated testing regime that involves thousands of disaffected and computer savvy teenagers, failed to install the security software that would ward off unsophisticated attackers.

The only appropriate assessment here would be to flunk them. Them being the DOE and the testing vendor, hired because, as my Herald colleague Kathleen McGrory reported, the company promised it could initiate a testing regime without bothering with a year-long field test.

The rush job was ordered because it was politically expedient. It was about politics. Not about education. The kids will get the lousy grades but it’s the politicians and the bureaucrats, too cowardly to admit they screwed up, who failed.