It has not been a good few days for students taking the FCAT and end-of-course exams, or for teachers administering them in Flagler County schools: the state’s effort to shift toward computerized testing, to save money and generate scores more quickly, was described by one teacher as an “FCAT fiasco” as students have been abruptly and inexplicably logged off their test in mid-question and computers have shut down from loss of power, compounding anxieties already built into the testing days because of the pressure students are under to perform—not just for themselves, but for their teachers’ and schools’ sake, because results affect teachers’ pay and schools’ budgets and reputations.
Students and teachers have worried about paying a price for problems out of their control: the stakes are so high on those tests that they can be the difference between students graduating or not, or moving on to the next grade, and for teachers, results will now be part of their evaluation.
“We haven’t heard a ton of issues but we have a technology team dedicated to helping to address issues as they arise throughout the week,” Shawn Schmidli, the district’s director of assessment and accountability, said today, describing problems as “small fires.” He had himself just been on the phone with the testing company, which has a system in place to address issues as they arise, when they haven’t been addressed at the school level. “It is still frustrating for our schools whenever our kids are getting kicked off.”
Problems have been documented at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Matanzas High School and Old Kings Elementary.
“I had a girl in here who got a message saying her user name and code was already in use,” one teacher reported. (Teachers’ names are not being reported to protect them against retaliation.) “She still has not successfully been able to log on and take the test. Every time they get her on, it kicks her off the minute she tries to answer the first question. I feel so sorry for her.”
On Tuesday, another teacher reported: ““Today is ok, but yesterday was a nightmare. Yesterday, I had seven computers that would not work at all. Three kids got kicked out while they were testing, and I was running around plugging in computers to keep them charged, while trying to keep kids appropriately spaced.”
The problem with power sources can be explained: because of the spacing requirements between students, they must each have a computer, and most use portable ones, including Mac laptops (which have their own sets of problems when it comes to small screens that require an inordinate amount of scrolling to see text, further consuming students’ time). The battery power may not be optimal for long tests. The problem with being booted off a log-in may have something to do with Pearson’s system being overwhelmed by students taking the same test across the state, and Pearson not providing adequate bandwidth to accommodate the demand, which may well be another corner-cutting issue. Teachers routinely see their students log in to the Florida Virtual School, for example, or the College Board, without having such problems.
Katie Hansen, a teacher at Indian Trails Middle School and the president of the Flagler County Educators Association, the teachers union, had been receiving reports of similar problems, principally from FPC. “That is exactly my concern—how are they fixing the situations for these students that are kicked off or are not completing the test,” Hansen said. “It’s definitely something we’re going to have to discuss at the negotiating table.” The union and the district hold their next bargaining session on April 26. In previous sessions, teacher evaluations were a serious sticking point that caused a rift between the two sides, because so much is now riding on those evaluations. FCAT glitches are adding to the potential problems with objective evaluations. “I certainly don’t want teachers negatively affected because of something they had no control over,” Hansen said.
Schmidli, said there are protocols in place to solve issues—and to keep students or teachers from being penalized. Each school has at least one testing coordinator, often two or three of them. The coordinators convey issues back to the district and the district conveys solutions to its coordinators, who then disseminate the information to teachers responsible for administering the actual exams. The Department of Education has set out extremely strict rules on where, when and how to administer the exams, down to the distance between desks, and a written pledge students must sign that—for example—commits to having no electronics whatsoever on the student’s person during the taking of a test (the computer station itself, of course, notwithstanding).
While there have been problems at various schools, Schmidli said, the first solution is the school itself, with help from the technology staff—as when computers die for lack of power, because batteries haven’t been charged enough or batteries run out, or when students are logged off. If the problem isn’t resolved at the school level, the call to Pearson’s line can kick in. If problems persist, then the district can call the Department of Education, and as long as the nature of the problem is documented—such as a student not having all the time provided to finish an exam, or a teacher having students facing a variety of issues during testing that are out of the teacher’s control—then students can literally be credited for the time they lost, by being given the time back to complete a test. Schools individually control the “resetting” of tests.
For all that, Schmidli said, teachers are still nervous because they fear the problems will reflect on them, unfairly. “It does create a lot of anxiety because people want to make sure they’re doing the right thing and they don’t want to lose their certificate, which has happened in the state of Florida,” he said. It hasn’t happened in Flagler County yet (a teacher losing a teaching certificate over poor test scores.)
The problems aren’t Flagler’s alone. Earlier today the St. Augustine Record reported similar issues in various St. Johns County schools (the district with the highest performing students the last three years running). “Based on the information we have we believe the problem is with Pearson and we’re working to rectify that,” Christina Langford, the school district’s spokeswoman, told the Record. “Students log on and it’s going to a server hosted by Pearson.”
Florida hired Pearson, the standardized testing company, to run the tests for $254 million over four years. The company has a history of problems, paying the state a $15 million fine two years ago because of glitches in tests and late scores that year. Its so-called FCAT 2.0 system (FCAT stands for Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) is designed to save the state more money by going paperless, and reducing the number of people who have to score the test, though much of those efficiencies will also result in more profits for Pearson.
Andy Dance, the school board member, had not yet been made aware of the computer-testing issues, but he was following reports from parents throughout the week about the anxiety-ridden nature of the testing. “I keep hearing stories, friends with Facebook, about the drama and the stress the kids are going through,” Dance said, “kids bent out of shape, vomiting and stuff.” Any additional anxiety only amplifies the pressure, he said, down to the extent the state and schools are going to impose strict security.
“If you’re going to put the emphasis on it, like so much is riding on these kids on one day,” Dance said, “now they’re cracking down to make sure the security is tight—I don’t know where it stops. I guess it’s going to have to stop with us, with parents.”
The following is a list of this year’s computer-based tests. EOC stands for End of Course Exam, a variation on the FCAT intended to be a more comprehensive reflection of the student’s work in that particular subject:
FCAT Mathematics Retake
FCAT 2.0 Reading Retake
FCAT 2.0 Grade 6 Reading
FCAT 2.0 Grade 7 Reading
FCAT 2.0 Grade 9 Reading
FCAT 2.0 Grade 10 Reading
FCAT 2.0 Grade 5 Mathematics
Algebra 1 End-of-Course (EOC)
Biology 1 EOC
US History EOC
Civics Field Test