State Testing woes continue

School Desk

Less than a week after Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation to roll back the number of tests taken by students at public schools, the state’s new, online standardized testing system was once again roiled Monday by log-in delays at several districts.

The technical problems were reminiscent of similar problems that cropped up in early March, when the new Florida Standards Assessments debuted. But those issues had subsided in recent weeks, with most of the tests going relatively smoothly after a delay of several days.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart issued a statement Monday blaming the problems on American Institutes for Research, a non-profit group that signed a six-year, $220 million deal with the state to run the testing platform. Stewart said an “unnecessary” change to the system made over the weekend without the Department of Education’s approval caused the problem.

Stewart said the problems were fixed before noon Monday.

“The company’s failure to follow protocol is absolutely unacceptable and the department will hold AIR accountable for the disruption they have caused to our state’s students, teachers and school staff,” Stewart said.

The problems gave critics of the Florida Standards Assessments a new chance to blast the testing platform and call for changes beyond those in the bill (HB 7069) that Scott signed last week. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the governor should issue an executive order suspending testing.

“We ask you to recognize the seriousness of these issues and the potential long term consequences and take steps to ensure that no more valuable instructional time is lost this year and that our students, teachers and schools are not harmed by the hasty implementation of the FSA,” wrote Andy Ford, the association’s president, in a letter to Scott.

The bill signed by Scott puts a hold on the use of student test data for school grades, teacher evaluations and student promotion to fourth grade until the new tests can be independently validated. But Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said the investigation of the Florida Standards Assessments wasn’t necessary.

“An independent review will conclude what many people already know,” Bullard said in a statement issued by his office. “This test wasn’t ready for primetime and its rollout was flawed. Our children don’t deserve to be penalized for Florida’s flawed problems.”

Robert Schaeffer, a Florida resident who serves as public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is critical of high-stakes exams, also called for the test to be suspended.

“Results from exams that have repeatedly been interrupted are not reliable, valid or even ‘standardized,’ ” Schaeffer said.

But Senate Education PreK-12 Chairman John Legg, who steered the testing reform bill through the Senate, said he wasn’t certain that the test would be proved invalid. He said that other disruptions, like storms or false fire alarms, sometimes interrupt testing.

Legg also encouraged Stewart to seek damages from AIR under the state’s contract.

“It’s like with any large technology rollout,” Legg said. “There are going to be situations where you have rollout failures. It is very disheartening that this was a human error by the vendor.”

Asked whether AIR could handle the task of administering the tests, Sen. Bill Montford — a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents — sounded skeptical.

“So far … they have not passed their own assessment,” he said.