The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FLDE) quietly closed its Florida Standards Assessment “cyber-attack” investigation this month citing an inability to identify suspects.  Not surprisingly, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart ignored the FDLE finding at the September Board of Education (BOE) meeting. Instead, she worked mightily to keep the notion of an unknown cyber-villain alive. BOE Member Gary Chartrand spoke of imagined “motives” and his fear of future attacks from what he calls “anti-test” citizen groups. Is he really implying that parents with laptops are behind the failures of the American Institutes of Research (AIR) server?

Last spring students across the state were repeatedly blocked from logging on to the AIR website while attempting to take the FSA. Their work often disappeared mid-test and many students were locked out and forced to start over the following day.  Superintendents at their wits end suspended testing for days due to confusion.

For years the state used “test security” as the reason to deny parents, teachers and students the transparency of reviewing their tests and understanding exactly how the state arrived at each score. Because of that, it was truly astonishing when no one, including Commissioner Stewart, cared that students saw test questions, went home and came back the next day or even the following week to re-test.

At first, Stewart put the blame on AIR, as this quote from the Tallahassee Democrat illustrates: “The company’s failure to follow protocol is absolutely unacceptable and the department will hold AIR accountable for the disruption they have caused to our state’s students, teachers and school staff,” said Pam Stewart. FSA failures grew exponentially and soon all eyes turned to AIR and Commissioner Stewart.

Determined to deflect blame away from herself, Stewart has repeatedly blamed “cyber-attacks” for all the FSA testing woes. For districts, tasked with making district-wide online testing a reality without proper state funding, the word “glitch” became synonymous with an FSA testing process that was both flawed and unreliable.

Despite the fact that parents, teachers, superintendents and school boards have warned that the FSA should not be used to grade any one, both Stewart and the BOE have doubled down on their belief that the troubled FSA must be used to grade schools and evaluate teachers. BOE Member Padget has spoken endlessly about giving students a “cold shower” by making the politically-driven pass/fail cut scores so harsh that they induce astronomically high failure rates.

Stewart, late to the party, has finally started talking about seeking damages from AIR. Parents have been demanding this for months after learning that AIR is getting $220M to deliver the test. It’s pretty clear that Stewart, legislators and the Florida Board of Education find it easier to hide behind the “cyber-attack” bogey-man than face the facts. The 2015 FSA was a poorly executed rush job. Its failure belongs to the politicians and “ed reform” lobbyists who pushed school districts into online testing knowing full well that no one, especially the state, was prepared.

Commissioner Stewart often cherry picks pieces of stories she wants to tell. Crying about “cyber-attacks” like Chicken Little does not make them real. Just ask the FLDE who took a politically-hyped charge, did a reality check and found zero suspects. Not surprisingly, all roads lead back to Stewart and AIR. They’re the real suspects.