Vendor Accepts Responsibility for Online-Testing Snafus in Florida

By Sean Cavanagh — March 02, 2015 4 min read
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Online-testing problems played out Monday in a number of Florida districts, some of which said they were forced to suspend the exams while they waited for state officials to give them a sign that the breakdowns would not occur again.

The districts experiencing glitches included some of the state’s biggest school systems. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Volusia, and Duval county districts reported problems, according to interviews and media reports today.

The scope of the problems varied across districts, though those interviewed by Education Week said the core of the issue was students and administrators not being able to log in to the online exams for writing in grades 8-10, or getting booted out of the testing system soon thereafter. Most said they have some leeway to wait for a fix, because of a two-week window for giving those exams, which are part of the Florida Standards Assessments.

Last year, Florida hired a major testing organization, the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, to oversee its exams on a contract worth an estimated $220 million. On Monday, the testing vendor issued a statement accepting the blame for the woes.

“AIR Assessment, the organization delivering the tests for Florida, accepts full responsibility for the difficulty,” the organization said. “We updated student data, which was not immediately available to the testing servers. When students logged onto the test, the servers were forced to reach out to other databases to get the necessary student information.”

“This substantially degraded performance,” the AIR added. “This data is now available to the testing servers, so the problem should not recur.”

[UPDATE (March 3): Count Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho, whose district had suspended testing, among those most upset by the initial wave of testing foul-ups.

On Tuesday morning, Carvalho said the online-testing delays and problems continued in his district. Citing “significant disruptions,” he said the district “could not bring back the hours” lost to the breakdowns.

Carvalho also told his followers that an op-ed by the Miami Herald about the disruptions aptly summed up his aggravation. It’s title: “An ‘F’ in Readiness.”]

(See EdWeek’s recent story profiling the growth of AIR’s testing business, and a broader piece looking at the wave of contracts awarded in the common-core era.)

In the 260,000-student Broward County schools, district officials chose to suspend their exams, based on state officials’ recommendations, until there was some confidence the problems wouldn’t re-emerge, district spokeswoman Nadine Drew said Monday.

“It’s not a problem [the district itself] can fix,” Drew said. “Obviously, it was challenging, and not what our students and schools hoped for.”

In the Hillsborough County schools, the breakdowns were “sporadic” with some schools rolling along glitch-free and others reporting problems logging in, said Stephen Hegarty, a spokesman for the 206,000-student district. Some schools decided to put off the tests until the problem is corrected, while others weren’t scheduled to begin the online testing until Tuesday, anyway, he said.

All told, schools’ experiences with the online tests “kind of ran the gamut” from good to bad, Hegarty said.

The online-assessment problems in Florida come amid an anti-testing backlash evident in states and districts around the country. That sentiment has sprung from a variety of sources, including the conviction among some parents, teachers, and policymakers that students are being over-tested at the expense of richer classroom experiences.

Like most states around the country, Florida adopted the Common Core State Standards, but it is not a member of either of the two main consortia of states developing exams aligned to the standards. It dropped out of one of them, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and thus has developed its own exams aligned to the common core.

Florida Department of Education officials issued a statement Monday noting that “many students across our state are testing successfully” but also acknowledging the breakdowns. The statement also noted that the test in question was a 90-minute exam, and that schools have a relatively big window of time to give it.

State Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart “is looking into any reported issues to determine the cause and will work to immediately resolve it,” the statement said.

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