State says tests OK but South Florida schools not yet on board

FILE--Sixth grader Qarleha Williamson, 12, prepares for the FCAT at Brownsville Middle School in Miami, on Saturday, March 21, 2012.
FILE--Sixth grader Qarleha Williamson, 12, prepares for the FCAT at Brownsville Middle School in Miami, on Saturday, March 21, 2012. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Florida Department of Education gave the all-clear to resume high-stakes testing on Tuesday, but South Florida’s largest counties postponed the exams as technical problems persisted for a second day.

Florida’s testing failures instantly became fodder for state lawmakers as they opened their annual session. A pair of senators went so far as to call for all testing to be suspended — something the Republican-dominated Legislature is unlikely to do.

But Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said more network tests are needed to make sure the glitches are ironed out. Until then, he said, Miami-Dade won’t give the exams. Broward and Palm Beach counties also decided to put the tests on hold for the time being.

“With so many doubts lingering in the air, it is not prudent — in fact, it may be irresponsible — to move forward,” Carvalho said.

Computer problems on Monday forced school districts around the state to delay the already-controversial Florida Standards Assessment. Students and test administrators had trouble logging on to the new testing platform, and connections at some schools ran at a snail’s pace.

The state reassured districts in an early-morning email on Tuesday that testing vendor American Institutes for Research had fixed software problems from the day before. But Hillsborough County ran into some of the same issues and told schools to cancel testing for a second day in a row.

“It’s groundhog day,” Hillsborough County school spokesman Stephen Hegarty told the Tampa Bay Times.

The problems persisted even though some of the state’s largest school districts — including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — didn’t participate in the second day of on-line testing.

In a statement emailed Tuesday night, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart acknowledged there were technical “difficulties” for a second day and said the state “cannot guarantee that some users will not encounter similar issues tomorrow.”

But she said connectivity has improved. According to Stewart, 150,000 students have taken the online tests since yesterday — about 23 percent of those registered for the exam.

“AIR has taken full responsibility for the issues and has dedicated all available resources to fixing the problem,” she said.

But Carvalho said the damage was already done, with the bungled roll-out compromising the fairness and validity of the test everywhere since some students were able to see questions before getting booted off.

“How is the state going to deal with this massive, massive potential breach of test security, that certainly, at the very least, breaches the equity of testing conditions for students?” he asked. “We have not received that information.”

Palm Beach schools spokeswoman Kathy Burstein said the district was holding off in the best interest of its teachers and students.

"These are really important tests for our students, so the decision was made not to frustrate them if there are any technical issues, and also to protect instructional time," she said.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District Schools Superintendents, said he was disappointed by the glitches — but not surprised.

“We’ve been saying for the last two years that districts are going to have difficulties because the infrastructure is not in place,” he said.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. , a Hialeah Republican who chairs the House Education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, called the problems “unacceptable.”

Two Democratic lawmakers took their criticism a step further, demanding action from Gov. Rick Scott, who did not mention the issue in his state-of-the-state speech.

"We are calling on you to immediately suspend the administration of these tests and allow time for educators to work out the problems, instead of using our children as guinea pigs for a flawed system," Sens. Dwight Bullard, of Miami, and Jeff Clemens, of Lake Worth wrote in a letter to the governor.

But State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he didn't expect the glitches to impact the policy debate in Tallahassee.

"We're not rolling back on computer-based testing and we're not rolling back on accountability," he said

According to the education department, 67,000 students out of 69,000 who started the test were able to complete it Monday. In their letter, Bullard and Clemens blasted the education commissioner for "misleading" superintendents and the public with those figures.

"While only a few thousand students who were able to take the test may have been unable to complete it, hundreds of thousands of students in districts such as Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Leon and over 30 others were completely unable to access the system properly," Bullard and Clemens wrote.

In Miami-Dade alone, 85,000 students are scheduled to take the writing test within the state's two-week testing window. Students in grades eight through 10 take the test on a computer; fourth- through seventh-grade students take it on paper and have continued testing as scheduled.

Even more students — grades five through 10 — are scheduled to take math and reading tests on computers for the first time in April. Those exams are much more technologically challenging because kids will have to drag and drop items and create number lines.

“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.”

Carvalho said he will take these concerns to Tallahassee again, with a Senate education committee set to discusses a proposal seeking to reduce the amount of testing on Wednesday.

The bill (SB 616) would remove a requirement that school districts create new tests in all subjects not already measured by a statewide assessment. It also would limit the number of hours a student may spend testing, and reduces the percentage of a teacher's evaluation that is based on student performance.

Critics have said the proposal should go further, especially in light of this week's technological troubles. Montford plans to propose an amendment that the new tests be used for diagnostic purposes only, he said.

"We need to move forward, but we do not need to use [the test] for high-stakes purposes," Montford said. "We have to work out the bugs before we use it to make decisions that affect students and teachers."

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