Florida lawmakers rip testing vendor after second round of glitches

Schoolchildren who sat for state exams Tuesday experienced few of the technical troubles that brought testing to a standstill one day earlier.

Still, lawmakers in Tallahassee seized the opportunity to publicly blast the state’s testing vendor for its second high-profile blunder in two months.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, went as far as to say Florida should end its contract with American Institutes for Research.

“In light of the bill that the governor signed last week that will stop the utilization of that statewide assessment until it is validated — and we all know it won’t be valid — I think we as responsible agents of the taxpayer dollar need to stop this $225 million contract dead in its tracks,” Hays said.

Hundreds of thousands of students were supposed to begin taking the new computer-based Florida Standards Assessments in language arts and math on Monday morning. But many had trouble logging onto the testing platform.

The meltdown — the result of a last-minute tweak to the testing system by AIR — led several large school districts, including Pinellas and Miami-Dade, to temporarily pull the plug on FSA testing.

The situation mirrored problems that occurred when AIR and the education department debuted the state’s new writing test in March. The rollout also fell victim to a cyber attack, officials said.

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart expressed anger and pointed the blame directly at AIR Monday, saying the non-profit had not been authorized to make the changes.

In a statement Tuesday, AIR said it agreed with Stewart and offered a more complete explanation of what happened than was available Monday.

The organization said it installed new servers over the weekend “without permission from AIR’s leadership or the Department of Education.” It said the changes had to do with scoring and reporting after testing was complete and did not have to be made at that time.

“We have multiple layers of approval within AIR, including receiving approval from the Department of Education,” the statement said. “Protocol also requires engineers follow detailed scripts and use checklists when working on production machines. As they implement the documented steps, they are required to follow a pilot/copilot procedure in which one engineer makes a change while a second one watches and confirms. Those procedures were not followed.”

The organization said it was reviewing the incident to prevent the problems from recurring.

Education department spokeswoman Meghan Collins said the problems were mostly resolved by Tuesday.

But that assurance did little to satisfy some members of the Florida Senate.

While discussing a bill aimed at helping schools get up to date on classroom technology, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said Monday’s glitches could have been avoided.

“I don’t think anything that happened yesterday was all that complex,” said Ring, a former Yahoo! executive.

Ring called the failure “absolutely unacceptable,” and asked to see the education department’s plan to rectify the problem.

Miami Herald reporter Christina Veiga contributed to this story. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. Contact Jeffrey Solochek atjsolochek@tampabay.com