Glitches pop up in new state tests; first round postponed in Miami-Dade, Broward

FILE ART: Language arts students from Carver Middle School in Coconut Grove prepare to take a state-mandated test.
FILE ART: Language arts students from Carver Middle School in Coconut Grove prepare to take a state-mandated test. MIAMI HERALD

As many predicted, Florida’s new standardized tests got off to a chaotic start Monday when technical glitches forced school districts across Florida to postpone the critical assessments.

Scores of schools reported trouble logging on to the test platform and slow connections, so the Florida Department of Education allowed them to push back the first round of tests.

Florida’s largest counties were all impacted — including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and Hillsborough — but the problems spanned the state.

“It has imploded,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer, had even stronger words.

“The State's Epic Fail of its new testing platform is evidence of its arrogance, inability to listen and overall ineptitude,” she tweeted.

The technology meltdown will only add to the litany of problems that superintendents, parents and teachers have raised regarding the controversial Florida Standards Assessments.

The FSA replaces the old Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, and is based on new education standards. Testing began Monday, with students in grades four through 10 sitting for the writing portion of the exam. Students also have to take language arts and math tests. Monday’s problems were isolated to computer-based tests given in grades eight through 10; others went off with no reported problems.

Though districts were eager to blame the state for the bugs, the Department of Education did not explain or put numbers to the problems. Commissioner Pam Stewart’s office issued only a three-sentence statement saying “many” students were testing successfully and pointing out that school districts have a two-week window in which to give the exams.

"Commissioner Stewart is looking into any reported issues to determine the cause and will work to immediately resolve it," wrote spokeswoman Meghan Collins.

Among the many uncertainties: How many students and districts were impacted, who was responsible for the problems, what exactly went wrong and when testing would resume.

More than half of Florida’s school districts reported problems, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The issues seemed concentrated in large districts, though smaller counties like Okaloosa and Escambia also reported having issues, said Ruth Melton, director of government relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

Miami-Dade schools spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the district will suspend online tests until there are “assurances of stability of testing environment.”

“This is out of respect for teachers, students and parents,” Gonzalez-Diego wrote in a text message. “We choose to teach until the state can sort this out.”

In Miami, parents at the New World School of the Arts received a text message Monday saying the ninth-grade writing test had been postponed until March 5. The reason: “computer technical difficulties.”

Miami Lakes Educational Center sophomore Kaitlyn Pujols said there were also problems at her school.

“As usual, logging into the tests is a problem,” she said in a message on Twitter. “It’s very messy.”

It’s not the first time the state has run into technical difficulties on statewide tests. In 2011, students couldn’t submit their algebra end-of-course exams. Last year, testing was suspended after problems with the computerized FCAT.

Education leaders across the state had warned the new system, developed by a company called American Institutes for Research, hadn’t been properly tested to make sure it could handle the volume of web traffic. For the first time this year, students in grades five through 10 are scheduled to take some sort of computerized state assessment.

Dozens of superintendents from across the state recently wrote to the education commissioner with concerns about the new computer-based tests. Many called for more trial runs. Carvalho also brought up the issue at a recent Florida Senate education committee meeting.

“Our concerns, which were sometimes ignored, are proving themselves to be real,” Carvalho told reporters Monday. “The state was not ready.”

The state has faced steady criticism that it is rolling out FSA too quickly. For example, there has been no field-test of the exam. Still, results will count towards student promotion and graduation, and will factor into teacher evaluations that can mean the difference between a raise or a pink slip.

“This is the problem with having no field test, or no baseline or no precursor to anything. This is the problem with saying, ‘We’ll just do it and build it as we go,’” said United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram.

Herald/Times Tallahassee correspondent Kathleen McGrory and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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