Education

Bugs again bedevil online testing in Florida schools

A Senate panel tweaked its testing bill Wednesday so that the results of this year’s Florida Standards Assessments would not be used to determine whether third-grade students can be promoted to the fourth grade, or high-school students can graduate until an independent review of the exam is conducted.
A Senate panel tweaked its testing bill Wednesday so that the results of this year’s Florida Standards Assessments would not be used to determine whether third-grade students can be promoted to the fourth grade, or high-school students can graduate until an independent review of the exam is conducted. Miami

Once again, testing ground to a halt Monday in schools across the state after technical glitches blocked students from taking standardized exams that are critical to their educational future.

Once again, Florida education officials blamed the problems on last-minute changes to testing systems by contractor, American Institutes for Research.

Just a week after Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill intended to address mounting testing concerns, Monday’s cyber problems reignited the political fight over whether the changes go far enough and whether results from the new tests, the Florida Standards Assessments, should be used to make decisions about student retention, teachers’ jobs and school letter grades.

One grassroots parent group, Fund Education Now, called on Scott to "immediately use his power to halt all consequences associated with this year’s FSA."

"It’s grossly unfair that the adults running the test are allowed repeated failures, yet the Florida Legislature could not find the decency to hold our children 100% harmless during this transition," founder Kathleen Oropeza said in a statement Monday.

Testing on Monday was canceled in some of the state’s largest counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Some counties reportedly resumed in the afternoon after the problems, which prevented students from logging on, were fixed.

A company spokesman said in an email that AIR installed new servers for grading tests over the weekend, causing the Monday meltdown. Additionally, the company didn’t follow its own protocol to implement and test the installation.

In a statement, AIR took “full responsibility” for the glitches and apologized.

“The problem stemmed from human error, and AIR is reviewing its procedures in order to prevent future events of this kind,” the statement read.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said in a statement that AIR’s work over the weekend was unapproved and unnecessary.

“The company’s failure to follow protocol is absolutely unacceptable and the Department will hold AIR accountable for the disruption they have caused to our state’s students, teachers and school staff,” she said.

Miami-Dade’s Chief Academic Officer, Marie Izquierdo, shot back: “Who holds the state accountable? And more importantly, who’s thinking about the children?”

Computer problems in March also derailed testing. Those issues were caused first by a system update AIR ran on the eve of rolling out the new tests, and then by a cyber attack, according to the state.

Grades 5 through 10 sat down to take the computer-based tests Monday morning.

Critics instantly buzzed over the latest testing flop. Florida parents, teachers unions and even students have said the state is placing too much importance on a test that was developed too fast.

“I’m so frustrated as a parent,” Miami-Dade PTA president Joe Gebara wrote in Twitter message to the Miami Herald. “The state doesn’t seem to be listening. I have teachers telling me their kids sat for two hours doing nothing in front of a computer.”

Scott signed legislation last week that calls for an outside review of whether the new tests are valid. Until then, the FSAs won’t be used in high stakes decisions, like retaining third grade students. The bill also eliminated some tests and limited the total number of hours students can spend on state-mandated exams.

Still, parents and teachers have complained the measure doesn't go far enough. Both groups had implored the Legislature to use this year's test results for diagnostic purposes only. They now want the governor to issue an executive order suspending all high-stakes consequences for the 2014-15 school year – something Scott seems unlikely to do. He has said the legislative process was the right way to address parent and teacher concerns.

“What reasonable adult can defend the FSA as a valid measure of student growth or teacher effectiveness?” said Colleen Wood, founder of the group 50th No More. “It is only proof of the disaster caused when politics drives education policy.”

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho alluded to the complaints in a Tweet Monday, saying the server failure "adds doubt to validity of test results."

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he did not believe the Florida Standards Assessments would be deemed invalid.

"You have to take a look at the totality of the issue," he said.

He continued to disagree with the parents calling for the suspension of the education accountability system.

"I fundamentally think we need to move forward," Legg said. "I have five kids and some of them are at schools. I know what they would do going into a test if they knew it didn't count."

Miami-Dade will continue testing again on Tuesday.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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