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Florida Assessments Back Online After Day Outage

Online testing in Florida schools being delivered by Pearson Education hiccupped on Tuesday, April 22, at 26 districts in the state and had to be delayed for a day while server problems were sorted out. Reported problems with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) included an inability for students to sign in to take the annual exam, slowness in downloading test questions and submitting answers, and a warning screen that directed students to alert their test proctor of a problem when they were finished.

The districts were informed on Wednesday that they could resume testing, and the Florida Department of Education said it would extend testing deadlines to accommodate the delay if they were needed.

The FCAT is administered to students in grades 3-11 and consists of assessments in math, reading, science and writing to measure student progress against Florida's Sunshine State Standards.

Coverage in Florida newspapers reported that Education Commissioner Pam Stewart called the latest failures "inexcusable" and wrote a letter to Pearson President of State Services Walter Sherwood, expecting "a resolution and an explanation for this immediately." She also stated that the state would pursue financial compensation for the outages in line with contractual agreements.

The Orlando Sentinel quoted a Pearson spokesman as saying that the network problem originated at a third-party hosting service provider used by the company.

The problems surfaced a little more than a month after the testing vendor learned that a competitor would be offered a six-year contract to deliver online assessments starring in the 2014-2015 school year. That new vendor, American Institutes for Research (AIR), is the same non-profit organization working with online assessment consortium Smarter Balanced to deliver its field testing and first year of operational assessments.

According to a frequently-asked-questions page on the Florida department's website, AIR will work with Data Recognition Corp. (DRC) to develop test content and score student responses. DRC has 30 years of experience in developing assessments and has successfully scored millions of student responses for large-scale statewide assessment programs.

AIR itself suffered some assessment outages during the latest school year. A crash beset Minnesota's 2013 state math tests.

Pearson's platform, TestNav, was chosen by alternate online assessment consortium PARCC to deliver its exams during the field testing period and first operational year in 2014-2015. The company has a long history in computer-based assessments. During 2013, Pearson delivered about 6.8 million computer-based tests; nearly 1.9 million of those were in Florida.

Florida was a member of the PARCC consortium; however, in September 2013 Florida Governor Rick Scott mandated that the state withdraw from PARCC and consider other test options. It expects to reduce the expense of state assessments under the new contract with AIR by about $3 per test.

Critics pounced on the problems as proof that the state isn't ready yet for such a broad use of online assessment. FCAT scores are used in Florida to evaluate student readiness to move to the next grade as well as school and teacher quality — uses that have been in place for paper-based testing too. However, Florida has used computer-based assessments for several years.

During the outage, assessments at Florida's 41 remaining districts continued apace.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.