FCAT computer glitches halt testing for thousands of students

Florida’s all-important FCAT exams were thrown into disarray on Tuesday, as widespread computer glitches prevented thousands of students across the state from logging into their computers and taking the test.

Things got so bad that some school districts advised their principals to abandon testing entirely until further notice. Gov. Rick Scott called the hiccups “unacceptable.”

All told, 26 school districts were affected.

At the center of it all is Pearson, the testing company that is paid millions of dollars to administer Florida’s exam. Tuesday’s computer problems drew unwelcome attention to the company’s prior track record, which has included numerous errors and mistakes that affected Florida schools.

In 2010, for example, Florida fined Pearson more than $14 million after the testing giant failed to deliver FCAT results on time. Pearson’s contract with the state brought the company $254 million over five years.

“I know the [state] Department of Education is looking into it," Scott said of Tuesday’s problems. “They are going to make sure this company is held accountable.... They will do whatever they can to make sure this wrong is corrected.”

Tuesday’s issue, however, has the potential to linger — even if the technology is running fine on Wednesday. That’s because some are already questioning whether the results from Tuesday’s testing will be reliable.

If a student taking the FCAT was distracted and slowed down by computer problems, should that test score count?

On Twitter, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho vented his frustration, complaining that Tuesday’s problems amounted to a “disrupted testing environment” that created an uneven playing field, and “could legitimately impact assessment results.”

Broward’s schools superintendent, Robert Runcie, wasn’t convinced that the FCAT scores would suffer. But he didn’t rule it out either.

“It is quite plausible,” Runcie said in an interview. “Will it affect their final outcomes? I don’t know at this point.”

One angry parent posted a comment on the Miami Herald’s website that the timer on her daughter’s FCAT test was never paused when her school computer malfunctioned. The student had to set up at a second computer, and waste time logging in again — all while precious seconds ticked by.

“She wasn't given the same amount of time as the other students,” parent Roxanna Fuentes wrote. “That is not fair.”

Pearson released the following statement: “Pearson’s online testing services for Florida experienced Internet traffic disruptions today due to a network issue with our third-party hosting service provider, Savvis. We are working closely with Savvis to remedy the situation as soon as possible. Even with the disruption, which did present difficulties for some school districts, many students are testing normally with almost 200,000 tests delivered today.”

Florida is moving to a different test provider, American Institutes for Research, for next year’s exams. But that six-year, $220 million contract doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing — AIR had similar computer glitches on its math test in Minnesota last year.

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart called Tuesday’s problems an “inexcusable” failure by the state’s current testing vendor.

“I expect a resolution and an explanation for this immediately,” Stewart said in a statement. “I also intend to pursue all liquidated damages and other remedies that may be available as a result of Pearson’s failure to fulfill its duty under the contract with the department.”

Florida’s high-stakes FCAT tests carry enormous consquences for students, teachers and schools. Poor test scores can, in some cases, lead to students being held back, and test scores are a big factor in Florida’s teacher evaluations.

Schools that struggle with low test scores can be forced to perform a dramatic overhaul, or even close altogether.

Even before Tuesday’s FCAT miscues, the fairness of standardized tests in general has been a contentious issue. For example, Florida’s test scores correlate strongly with family income, which raises the question of whether the tests measure student ability or simply reflect the advantages, or disadvantages, of a student’s home life. South Florida’s wealthiest schools have never received a D or F grade from the state.

Tuesday’s testing mishaps happened in multiple ways, according to Miami-Dade school district spokesman John Schuster. Schuster wrote in an e-mail that “students already in testing sessions this morning were able to complete their tests, but many received error messages upon completion, and many more students were unable to start testing when they were scheduled.”

Schuster added that the district has been told schools may be provided with additional time to complete the tests if they experienced an outage.

In Broward, district spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said via e-mail that the district’s middle and high school students were affected. Brennan said most schools had resolved the technical issues and resumed testing, but “some schools that continued to experience issues with the Pearson testing website have temporarily suspended FCAT testing until Pearson can correct the problem.”

On Twitter, some students reacted with glee over the FCAT postponement, while others lamented the time that was being wasted during all the confusion.

One student wrote: “FCAT was a total bust this morning... the ‘network’ is down. We sat there for more than an hour just to be told to go back to class.”

Another student tweeted: “I literally was in the fcat room for a good 3 hours, it better not happen like that tomorrow.”

Several years ago, when Florida began the push toward online testing, some warned of the possibility of computer meltdowns. Broward education activist Donna Greene said the chance of power outages and other trouble makes computer testing a “nightmare scenario.”

“The results of the test are definitely going to vary depending on the environment that the school has,” Greene said. “If they have enough computers and everyone gets to take the test on a working computer, that’s a good environment.”

Florida is unlikely to switch back to paper and pencil exams. Florida has joined more than 40 other states in implementing the Common Core standards, which call for computerized tests.

Runcie, the Broward superintendent, said Common Core is supposed to develop students’ problem-solving skills, and computer tests can offer more sophisticated questions.

“That’s not something that you can just figure out on a bubble sheet,” he said.

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