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Florida high school students prepare for statewide exams. (2010 Tampa Bay Times photo) Florida high school students prepare for statewide exams. (2010 Tampa Bay Times photo)

Florida high school students prepare for statewide exams. (2010 Tampa Bay Times photo)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 16, 2015

House education chair blames Florida testing delays on cyber attack only

On day 1 of the new computerized standardized tests in Florida, students and administrators across the state couldn’t log on to the tests, forcing some districts to postpone the assessments.

The problems that started March 2 spanned the state and hit Florida's largest counties including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough. Initial reports were that it was a technical glitch in the hands of the testing vendor, American Institutes for Research. But by the end of the week, state law enforcement were also investigating a cyber security attack.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho would later call it a "catastrophic meltdown," and the testing problems added more fuel to the fire about Florida’s focus on tests.

During a House Education Appropriations Committee meeting March 12, chairwoman and state Rep. H. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, put the blame solely on the cyber attack.

"On the testing problems, many of you may have read in the media, that the problem was not that of a vendor, the problem was not that of the test materials itself, it was the product of a cyber attack," she said.

O’Toole’s claim suggested that the sole problem was the cyber attack, but that conflicted with news reports and information provided by the state Department of Education.

The testing woes

Whether K-12 students are taking too many tests is a hot topic during this legislative session, with many teachers and parents pushing for fewer tests. Gov. Rick Scott promised during his 2014 campaign to investigate every statewide test and in February ordered the state to stop giving an 11th-grade Florida Standards Assessment for language arts.

This year, students started taking the Florida Standards Assessments aligned to Florida's new education benchmarks, based on the Common Core State Standards. The new tests replaced the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

Testing started on Monday, March 2 -- and was an instant mess. The problems occurred on the computer-based tests given in grades 8-10 when they couldn’t log on to the testing platform. The Tampa Bay Times reported that testing problems occurred in more than half of the districts.

The state sent districts an email Tuesday morning saying that the testing vendor, AIR, had fixed software problems the day before. But the problems persisted in some places.

"What happened was AIR did an update to their system the day before testing began," Stewart explained to a House education committee March 5. "Admittedly that was the wrong timing, and it caused them some issues with data retrieval."

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AIR issued a statement to the media, including PolitiFact Florida, accepting "full responsibility" for the technical difficulties.

"Ultimately, we concluded that an update we performed had inadvertently degraded system performance, resulting in the delays districts experienced. Once we were able to identify the problem, we promptly resolved it," a spokesman wrote.

But on March 9 -- one week after the testing troubles began -- Stewart sent a press release stating that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating testing delays caused by cyber-attacks on a server used to administer the test.

Stewart wrote that "some of the delays in testing" were due to cyber-attacks and repeated that AIR’s system update had resulted in the initial delays Monday and Tuesday.

"By Tuesday afternoon, the issue with the log on server was resolved," Stewart wrote. "While there were some sporadic reports of denial of service on Monday and Tuesday, significant concerns of an attack did not occur until Thursday morning when DOE received widespread reports from a number of districts of ‘white screens’ after logging in. By approximately 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the problem had subsided and the districts that continued were able to test successfully for the rest of the day. AIR confirmed the cause of this issue was a cyber-attack on the log on server."

AIR told PolitiFact Florida that the cyber-attack was launched against a firewall that protects the servers.

"There was no attempt to infiltrate the firewall, but rather to make the website unavailable by flooding the firewall with nonsense connections," an AIR spokesman said.

School districts have a two-week window to deliver the tests, and as of the middle of the second week, about 87 percent of the students had taken the tests.

We sent portions of Stewart’s press release to O’Toole spokesman Joshua Blake, who said she misspoke during the committee.

"I intended to convey that a cyber-attack was reported to have played a role in those initial difficulties, but the numbers show that 87 percent have completed the test as of yesterday, and I am encouraged by that number," O'Toole said in a statement provided by Blake.

Our ruling

O’Toole said that the testing "problem was not that of a vendor, the problem was not that of the test materials itself, it was the product of a cyber attack."

Actually, a vendor update was responsible for the initial problems that kept students from logging onto the new testing system. The cyber attack was another problem that happened later in the week. O’Toole admitted she misspoke.

There is an element of truth here because the cyber attack did create problems, but it wasn’t the only culprit. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Florida Department of Education, "FDLE investigating cyber attacks against FSA testing system," March 9, 2015

Florida Channel, House Education Committee hearing, March 5, 2015

Florida Channel, House Education Appropriations Committee, March 15, 2015

Miami Herald, "Glitches pop up in new state tests," March 2, 2015

Miami Herald, "Florida repeatedly warned about an untested test for students," March 7, 2015

Miami Herald, "Florida testing troubles caused by cyber attack," March 9, 2015

Miami Herald Naked Politics blog, "House panel rejects pitch to delay school grades," March 12, 2015

Tampa Bay Times, "Florida investigating hack into state testing system," March 9, 2015

Interview, Josh Blake, Legislative Assistant to state Rep. H. Marlene O'Toole, March 12, 2015

Interview, Larry McQuillan, American Institutes for Research spokesman, March 12, 2015

Interview, Cheryl Etters, Florida Department of Education spokeswoman, March 12, 2015

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House education chair blames Florida testing delays on cyber attack only

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