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Correctly Anticipating State Problems, Flagler Delayed School Testing Until Thursday

| March 3, 2015

Rarely in the spotlight, Shawn Schmidli, the Flagler school district's assessment director,  anticipated that state-issued computer tests would have problems, and delayed Flagler's testing until Thursday. (© FlaglerLive)

Rarely in the spotlight, Shawn Schmidli, the Flagler school district’s assessment director, anticipated that state-issued computer tests would have problems, and delayed Flagler’s testing until Thursday. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County School Board doesn’t usually “spotlight” its own administrators, as it does many faculty and students at the top of its twice-monthly board meetings. But if the board  has one man to thank for sparing Flagler County schools–and 3,000 students in three grades–the anxiety of dealing with state testing’s malfunctions, as have hundreds of thousands of students across the state since Monday, it’s Shawn Schmidli, its testing coordinator.

Testing was to begin for most grades this week, with grades 8, 9 and 10 having to take new tests by computer for the first time. The state gave districts a two-week window to schedule their tests. Most, including Volusia County and big districts such as Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Oange,  decided to go ahead with testing Monday.

Not Flagler. In a decision that now looks remarkably prescient, Schmidli purposefully scheduled the computer-based testing on Thursday.

“I knew it was a brand new system,” Schmidli said, citing past issues with state testing as another reason to watch how other counties contend with the new system first.  “I didn’t think it was a good idea to start our kids off on the first day. Any time you do something new there’s always some bugs you have to iron out.”

He was right. Students across Florida reportedly had problems Monday logging on to the state’s new online-testing platform, raising questions about the testing system just as as lawmakers consider an overhaul. Students who’d log in would get kicked out and discover that their work had not been saved. (There’s a save button: students are encouraged to use it.) Students had trouble logging in in the first place, as did teachers, who now have roles as testing administrators: they log in first, starting a session with its own code, which they then give their students to use for their log-in. That process has lagged, and given Schmidli time to study the problems and their solutions.

Not that he hadn’t already gone through just such drills: the state Department of Education required districts to go through testing drills a month ago, and Flagler conducted such drills at Matanzas and Indian Trails, just as other districts were doing so–and reporting problems even then. “We were able to isolate and look at some of those issues,” Schmidli said.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea to start our kids off on the first day.”

State Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said his organization sent a survey to districts about 9 a.m. Monday. By about 3 p.m., 30 had responded, with more than 20 reporting problems.

“Maybe the other 37 have had a perfect day. I doubt it,” Montford said.

Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said reports of problems were coming from “all over,” but the union didn’t yet know exactly how widespread they were.

“This is our biggest fear coming true,” McCall said. ” … For us, it’s a false start for students.”

In Flagler, testing does begin on Wednesday in elementary schools, but all those tests are paper-based. And make-up testing will continue through Friday. “I think we’re in a good place right now, knock on wood, we’re feeling pretty comfortable with it,” Schmidli said. “We’ll know more Thursday.” If problems do arise, testing coordinators are in place at each school, as they always are, and will be responsible for filtering issues to the central office, should those arise and not be resolved at the school. “For the students that have their test results lost and the school suspended their testing, I know they’ve allowed those kids to retest, from the emails that I’ve been reading,” Schmidli said of other districts,m though he doesn’t not anticipate issues that severe here.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education said Commissioner Pam Stewart was working on the problem.

“While many students across our state are testing successfully, we have heard from some districts that are experiencing difficulties,” spokeswoman Meghan Collins wrote in an email Monday afternoon. “This is a 90-minute test; students have a two-week window, plus a makeup window, to complete the test. Commissioner Stewart is looking into any reported issues to determine the cause and will work to immediately resolve it.”

But Montford said that’s not good enough. He said students were prepared to take the test Monday, and districts made preparations to administer the exams.

“This is a high-stakes assessment with the future of these students riding on it,” said Montford, a former Leon County superintendent.

The snafus came as the Legislature is considering whether to overhaul the state’s testing plan, which some parents and educators argue has become too overbearing.

Senate Education PreK-12 Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, has sponsored legislation (SB 616), that would cap the amount of time students spend on state and local tests at 5 percent of their schools hours. The bill would also authorize districts to use something other than tests to assess students in some courses and would reduce the share of a teacher’s evaluation that would be based on student learning growth.

A House bill will be available this week, House Education Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, said recently.

Both committees are expected to meet on the issue this week.

Montford has filed legislation (SB 774) that would suspend most of the state’s accountability system for two years. Under Montford’s proposal, students could not be held back a grade or barred from graduating based solely on test scores, though those results would be a factor; schools would not be assigned letter grades; and the teacher evaluation system would be modified.

Critics of the tests say the early problems simply back up their arguments.

“Today’s fiasco once again demonstrates that Florida testing policy is being driven by politicians and ideologues, not educators,” said Bob Schaeffer, a Florida resident and public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an organization critical of high-stakes testing. “Florida schools and the children they serve need a pause in testing insanity and a thorough overhaul of the state’s assessment system. Enough is enough.”

–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida

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