Cyber Attacks Partly to Blame for Florida’s Testing Problems, State Says

By Sean Cavanagh — March 09, 2015 2 min read
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The delays and disruptions that plagued Florida’s online writing tests last week were partly caused by cyber attacks on its systems, a top state official said today.

Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will begin an investigation aimed at identifying the origin of the attacks, and the culprits behind it.

“While most Florida students are continuing to test successfully, we now know that some of the delays in testing late last week were due to cyber attacks on our testing system,” Stewart said in a statement released Monday.

While several states have suffered through snafus on their statewide assessments over the years due to technical glitches, reports of cyber attacks scuttling tests appear to be relatively new.

Last week, several districts across Florida reported problems with students and administrators not being able to log in to statewide online writing exams for grades 8-10—or getting kicked out of the system at some point before tests were complete.

While Stewart publicly minimized the scope of those disruptions, noting that the vast majority of tests given were reported as successful, the breakdowns angered K-12 officials around the state, who said the delays and uncertainty disrupted schools and sapped away instructional time. A number of big districts suspended testing as the problems played out.

The state’s testing vendor, the American Institutes for Research, accepted blame last week for the breakdowns. But late last Thursday, after the disruptions had eased, the AIR “confirmed the cause of [the] issue was a cyber attack on the log-on server,” Stewart said in a statement today.

Stewart said that the AIR said the attack caused a “denial of service,” but she predicted it would not skew student test scores, or result in students’ personal data being compromised.

The commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Rick Swearingen, said in the same statement issued by Stewart that his agency’s cyber-crime unit was consulting with the FBI on the issue, and that the investigation “is to be a priority.”

Stewart said the AIR was trying to capture any lost student-test responses. The vendor believes “the measures they have now put in place will prevent any future attacks from impacting testing,” said the commissioner, but “we know that we have to remain vigilant to ensure all our testing vendors protect students’ testing results and personal information at all times.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.