Florida investigates cyberattack on school testing program

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's new online standardized test was the target of a cyberattack that caused delays at some schools, officials said Monday.

The state's top law enforcement agency has launched an investigation right as school districts are in the middle of giving the test, based on new standards linked to Common Core. The vendor providing the test has maintained no student data was obtained through the attacks, state officials said.

Many districts suspended the test early last week amid problems that were blamed on software glitches. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said those were fixed, but that a cyberattack hit servers Thursday. Tests were delayed at some schools and one large school district had to halt it entirely that day.

Stewart said her agency has been working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"We will continue to provide them with any information possible to ensure they identify the bad actors and hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law," Stewart said in a statement.

The troubled roll-out of the new test — known as the Florida Standards Assessment — has prompted critics to call on the Department of Education and legislators to remove any sanctions or penalties associated with the new test. The test is being used for everything from deciding which students to hold back in the third grade to graduation. School superintendents worried ahead of the exam that there would be problems.

Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association, said the attack is another reason that the state should have been much more deliberative in how it transitioned to the new test. One of the key complaints has been the assessment was only field tested in Utah.

"If it's true it's the wrong approach. And it just shows that not only weren't you ready, but you're vulnerable to the outside world," he said. "And DOE really needs to take a look at what they've done and what they've built."

Florida is giving tests this spring in grades 3 through 10, but it is only middle school and high school students who have been taking a writing test through an online portal.

At the start of the testing window, administrators could not log in and students were being logged out prior to completion. The company handling the test, American Institutes for Research, accepted blame for the problems and said it was due to an update right before testing began.

On Thursday morning, the department received widespread reports about a number of "white screens" during log-in. The company told state officials the problem was due to a cyberattack.

Law enforcement commissioner Rick Swearingen said the state has consulted with the FBI and is trying "to determine where these attacks are coming from and to identify suspects."

State officials said so far nearly 400,000 students have completed the writing test.


Tallahassee correspondent Brendan Farrington contributed to this story.


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