Florida Online-Testing Woes Persist as Districts Wait on State Assurances

By Sean Cavanagh — March 03, 2015 3 min read
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Online-testing in a number of Florida districts today seemed to settle into a bizarre holding pattern, as several school systems said they were suspending giving the exams until the state assured them that a series of disruptions were coming to an end.

But those guarantees weren’t coming—at least not right away.

Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach county districts, among others, said they were suspending online testing through Wednesday, because they were not confident that the problems that bedeviled the tests on Monday, and Tuesday in some districts, would not re-emerge.

On Monday, the vendor hired by the state, the American Institutes for Research, accepted blame for the mishaps, saying the problems stemmed from an updating of student data that was not made available to testing servers.

And on Tuesday morning, Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart told districts that she believed problems with the exams—which prevented students and test administrators from logging into systems, or kicked them out—had been conquered.

But throughout early Tuesday, reports of similar breakdowns popped up a number of Florida districts, which in turn appeared to spook school officials elsewhere, convincing them that it was better to wait to give the exams rather than risk further interruptions. Florida’s districts have a two-week window to giving the online exams in question, the writing assessments for students in grades 8-10. Several districts said other state tests given with paper-and-pencil were going forward as planned.

Among the headaches caused by the testing disruptions were the jumbling of class schedules and lesson-planning, because teachers weren’t sure when the exams would be given, said Chris Petley, a spokesman for the 34,000-student Leon County district, in an interview.

“It becomes a game of scheduling, and air-traffic control,” Petley said. “Our schools just want to get it done...[but] we want to make sure it’s done right.”

The Palm Beach County district issued a statement Tuesday announcing the suspension of online tests the next day, a decision made “so as not to frustrate students who may experience technical issues and to protect instructional time as the state works to resolve these challenges on assessments that are high-stakes and, for some students, tied to graduation.”

Exactly when districts will be confident enough to go forward with online testing remains unclear. Late Tuesday, Stewart, the state’s education commissioner, released a statement saying that even though the state is working with the AIR to fix the exams, other problems could emerge.

Stewart said that while exams had gone awry in some districts, testing in many schools had been glitch-free—and she wanted other systems to have the right to go forward. Roughly 68,000 students finished the tests Monday, and more than 85,000 students did so on Tuesday, for a total of more than 150,000 assessments completed, she said. That represents 23 percent of the students registered to take the computer-based writing exams.

Even so, Stewart said the state “cannot guarantee that some users will not encounter similar issues tomorrow.”

[UPDATE (March 4): Meanwhile, a pair of Democratic Florida state senators has written a letter to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, asking him to suspend the online tests until the problems can be fixed and accusing the department of education of glossing over the severity of the breakdowns.

State Sens. Dwight Bullard and Jeff Clemens said the state had been warned by school superintendents, administrators, and teachers that Florida was not ready for the Web-based exams.

“Their pleas were ignored by the department of education, which now claims that only a few thousand students were unable to test on March 2,” the senators wrote. " This is such a terrible twisting of the truth as to be almost unbelievable. 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, resulting in total suspension of the testing in many, if not most, counties. Further, thousands of hours of instructional time have been wasted.”]

The AIR declined comment on the breakdowns, beyond the organization’s earlier statement accepting responsiblity for the problems. Stewart said the AIR had made improvements throughout the day to the online exams, which would be put through testing overnight.

How quickly the state and the vendor can win back districts’ confidence, however, remains to be seen.

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