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Thursday, Jul 19, 2018
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Florida’s latest stab at high-stakes school testing gets an F

Cindy Stuart was furious.

She generally is a thoughtful and measured member of the Hillsborough County School Board, but she wasn’t holding back after a malfunction sabotaged the state-mandated Florida Standards Assessment tests in math and language arts Monday.

The computer system designed by American Institutes for Research crashed, boomed and kept thousands of students statewide from taking the high-stakes tests at their scheduled times.

This is at least the second wide-scale failure of this system since March. AIR took responsibility for what it called “human error.”

OK, but something a little more drastic than “my bad” from the company ought to be in order.

“I have a hard time seeing children — children, mind you — getting all geared up for this important test and then having the system fail them,” Stuart said.

“Blame is getting tossed around like a hot potato. It’s frustrating. We have a problem. So just own it and fix it.”

Oh, if only it would be that easy.

Start with the bedrock notion that Tallahassee lawmakers have treated public education like a chew toy for years. It’s an irresistible target, given that, as Stuart noted, “we can’t all relate to Medicare, Obamacare or gun control, but we’ve all been touched by education.”

Politicians know that.

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They made teachers and school administrators targets, all in the name of “accountability” and getting elected. They created a system of high-stakes standardized tests and tied it to teacher pay and student promotion or retention.

What’s not so obvious is that these tests are also big business. One report said states spend $1.7 billion every year on testing. Florida budgets $94 million for companies to create tests and evaluate the results.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart unloaded in righteous thunder at AIR, calling the situation “unacceptable” in a statement, adding, “... the department will hold AIR accountable for the disruption they have caused to our state’s students, teachers and school staff.”

Nicely done.

Now, let’s see what the good commissioner means by holding AIR “accountable.” She can start by throwing out the results of the Florida Standards tests.

Here’s what even a minor disruption causes.

“We have to approach this as if the testing will go on as scheduled. We can’t tell the kids that they’ll have the test if the computers are working. When there are problems, we have to start moving schedules around,” Hillsborough schools spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

“We had to move some lunch schedules around. We made do, but it does involve some changes.”

Those changes aren’t simple, especially at the larger schools. Think of it as how cars back up when there is a rush-hour wreck on the interstate. Students are competing for a limited number of computers in a limited space. Scheduling becomes a problem.

Other state-mandated tests were on the calendar for Tuesday. All the juggling creates the potential for havoc.

Tests can be an important tool for educators — no question. But there are too many tests measuring too many things. The goal of education should be to develop well-rounded, curious and involved students.

Lawmakers have believed that spitting back the right answers to yet another test is a better way. Fortunately, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last week that eliminates one of the tests. It’s not nearly enough, but it is a start.

“The bigger question is with all the changes, are we really getting students better educated than they were 25 years ago?” Stuart said.

That’s not just the bigger question, it is the only question that matters.

Well, that and whether the computer server is up and running.

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