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Florida Online Testing Disrupted Again, Vendor Apologizes

UPDATED

Florida's online exams were once again plagued by disruptions, a new round of breakdowns that incensed the state's schools chief and drew a mea culpa from the testing vendor.

School districts in several counties reported students not being able to log in to the testing system this morning to take the Florida Standards Assessments for grades 5-10 in English/language arts and grades 5-8 in math.

The American Institutes for Research, which was awarded a $220 million, six-year contract to oversee the Florida Standards Assessments, apologized for the delays, which it said in a statement had been resolved by 11 a.m.

"The problem stemmed from human error, and AIR is reviewing its procedures in order to prevent future events of this kind," the Washington-based testing vendor stated. "AIR takes full responsibility for this issue."

Sounds familiar?

That's because last month Florida's schools experienced a series of problems while trying to give online writing exams, with students and administrators reporting they were kicked out or locked out of the system.

The AIR accepted responsibility for those breakdowns, too. State officials later said they suspected that a cyber attack was partly to blame for those woes.

The latest disruptions drew an angry response from state education commissioner Pam Stewart, who said in a statement that the president of the AIR's assessment division, Jon Cohen, told her that the issue stemmed from a "technical change" that had been made to the state's assessment system over the weekend.

That change "was not approved by the department," Stewart said.

"This change was unnecessary to the administration of the Florida Standards Assessment," Stewart said. "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."

The window for districts to give the online exams is April 13 to May 8, according to the state education department.

[UPDATE: An AIR spokesman later in the day offered the following explanation for the testing problems in Florida:

"AIR agrees with the statements made by Commissioner Stewart. In this instance, we installed new servers without permission from AIR's leadership or the department of education. Because these servers' primary purpose relates to scoring and reporting after testing is complete, it was not necessary to make this change over the weekend.

We have multiple layers of approval within AIR, including receiving approval from the department of education. 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.

We are reviewing the details of this particular incident to determine what took place and to identify additional steps we can implement to prevent it from happening again."]

The latest problems prompted one advocacy group, Orlando-based Fund Education Now, to call on Florida Gov. Rick Scott to issue an executive order halting all academic consequences linked to the exams.

"It's grossly unfair that the adults running the test are allowed repeated failures, yet the Florida Legislature could not find the decency to hold our children 100 percent harmless during this transition," the organization said in a statement.

It's been a rough stretch for online testing recently, and not just in Florida.

Montana weathered a round of online-testing disruptions on assessments designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, prompting the state's top education official last week to give districts the option to not give the exams, as my colleague Andrew Ujifusa reported. Nevada and North Dakota have also coped with problems giving their computer-based exams.

[Correction: The original version of this post misstated which states, other than Florida, have experienced recent trouble with online testing. The states that should have been mentioned were Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota.]


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