September 16, 2015

FDLE: No student info compromised in Florida testing cyber-attack



Florida state law enforcement officials say no test instruments, test results or student information were compromised in a cyber-attack that plagued the Florida Standards Assessments when the test debuted in March.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Wednesday it had concluded its six-month investigation into the hack, which affected eighth-, ninth- and 10th graders taking the statewide exam. Students trying to access the Florida Standards Assessments either couldn't log in or were met with blank white screens when they did.

FDLE did not identify a suspect or motive in the "denial of service" attack, which the agency said was targeted at Rackspace, a subcontractor of the state's test provider, American Institutes for Research.

"The security procedures utilized by private entities assisted in the mitigation of these attacks," FDLE said.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said Wednesday she was grateful for FDLE's "prompt response" in launching the investigation shortly after students experienced problems.

“I want to reassure our state’s students, parents and educators that, because of the nature of the cyber-attack, no student information was accessed and the content of the assessment was not compromised," Stewart said in a statement. "I am pleased that the additional safeguards were effective, and we will continue working with AIR to ensure they have all of the necessary protections to provide for a smooth testing experience this year.” 

With assistance from federal partners, FDLE found some of the more than 29,000 IP addresses used to targeted Rackspace were based in the United States, but "most were believed to be in foreign countries."

"The flood of these incoming messages or connections blocked legitimate traffic (test takers) from accessing the server and the test or slowed these connections to the point of impacting test delivery," FDLE said in a statement. "In attacks like this, the owners of compromised computers or users on the compromised networks often have no knowledge that their technology has been utilized to facilitate a denial of service."

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September 15, 2015

Miami-Dade County teachers take contract concerns to Kendall homeowners meeting


Teachers took over the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations meeting Monday night, peppering guest speaker Superintendent Alberto Carvalho with questions about their salaries, class size and performance pay.

The teachers were galvanized mainly by concerns about their labor contract, which was approved earlier this month. More than a dozen teachers showed up.

“We can talk about whatever issues you want to talk about, since some of you turned this into, ‘Let’s ask Alberto,’” Carvalho said. “You should know you can ask me anything. I’ll answer.”

Almost 40 percent of teachers voted against the contract negotiated by United Teachers of Dade. The agreement eliminates pay “steps” -- a set raise every year, depending on years of service. Instead, the contract marks a move towards performance pay, which union leaders and school district officials say is mandated by the state.

Retired teacher Esther Garvett said the changes deprive some long-time teachers of substantial raises that were promised under the previous contract.

“It’s just not fair,” she said. “They’ve been waiting and waiting.”

Carvalho said the new system spreads out raises in a more equitable way. Previously, he said, new teachers got meager raises -- sometimes $150. He also hinted that future negotiations could lead to more money for veteran teachers.

John A. Ferguson Senior High teacher Sarah Hays pressed for answers about when performance pay would finally kick in. The biology teacher said her students perform well, so she was looking forward to a boost in pay.

“My scores are great,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this accountability.”

But with merit pay attached to student test scores -- and the state constantly changing testing requirements -- Carvalho said there is no fair way to implement a performance pay system right now.

The superintendent took questions for about an hour during the mostly cordial but sometimes testy meeting. He tried to end on a unifying note.

“There is nothing this workforce cannot accomplish and I am exceedingly proud of every one of you, even when you don’t agree, necessarily,” Carvalho said.

September 08, 2015

An inside look at the rocky start to Florida’s standardized school test


The rollout of Florida’s standardized tests was so hampered by glitches that students “shut down” after having their answers lost over and over again, and others may have accidentally gotten a peek at questions a day before they had to answer them.

A recently released survey of Florida school districts that use the controversial Florida Standards Assessments has provided a more detailed look into what it was like as districts tried to administer the computer-based tests in the spring.

In anonymous responses gathered as part of a testing postmortem ordered by the Legislature, district officials outlined issues with the computerized exams that ranged from the annoying to the alarming. One district said some students may have been clued in that they hadn’t supplied enough correct answers when the test refused to let them move on until they added another response. Another district worried there might be lawsuits from parents. And yet another resorted to capital letters and exclamation points to register the full extent of problems that cropped up:

“With SO many error messages and issues, frustration and stress levels were through the roof!”

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has touted the results of the study as “welcome news,” highlighting the overall conclusion that the exams were found to be an accurate way to measure what students have learned. The study found that only between 1 and 5 percent of students who took each test were affected by computer glitches. With that blessing, Florida plans to use results from the FSAs to assign schools a letter grade and evaluate teachers — which could affect their pay.

But the assurances from the state have done little to smooth over concerns by school districts across the state, which say the chaotic environment surrounding the testing can have immeasurable effects on how students performed.

“It’s almost asking people to suspend their personal experience for a moment and just trust us that it went well, when people know for a fact that it didn’t,” Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, told the Miami Herald.

More here.

September 04, 2015

State board of education board member resigns


Gov. Rick Scott is losing one of the state’s seven board of education board member thanks to his own doing.

Scott on Friday appointed Manatee County resident John Colon to fill a vacancy on the Manatee County School Board, which prompted Colon to then have to submit his resignation from the state board of education.

Colon, a Republican and financial advisor who lives in the University Park areas of Manatee County, has been on the state board of education since 2013 and was reappointed earlier this year for a term that was supposed to run through 2018.

Colon said he loved being on the state board of education, but could not pass up an opportunity to serve more in his local community. Colon has previously been the chairman of the Sarasota Housing Authority and ran for the Manatee County Commission in 2012 but lost.

With both state and local education experience, Colon said he hoped to be a person who could bring key insight to the school district when it comes to dealing with state rules and regulations.

Colon's appointment to the school board is only until the next election in 2016.

Colon replaces Manatee School Board member Mary Cantrell, who died in July, just 8 months after winning a seat on the board.

September 02, 2015

In Miami, Joe Biden gets feel for what campaigning again would be like

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Joe Biden came to Miami on Wednesday and sounded — at times — like a politician with another campaign in him.

Speaking at Miami Dade College’s North Campus about making higher education more affordable, the vice president touched on the sort of themes — immigration reform, the economy and the middle class — that presidential candidates like to deploy from the stump.

Biden isn’t running right now. But he’s thinking about it. And his two-day trip to Miami-Dade and Broward, the most Democratic counties in the country’s largest swing state, only stoked the fire among reporters and political observers that a Biden 2016 campaign could be for real.

“It’s amazing how good the school is. Look at all the press you’ve attracted,” Biden joked to about 150 people gathered at MDC’s Science Complex. “Their interest in community colleges impresses me. I hope that’s what they’re going to write about!”

He also made a reference to people unafraid to fail — a line that referred to the courage of older students returning to college that nevertheless could apply to potential candidates weighing a run for office.

“People who aren’t willing to risk failure never succeed,” Biden said. At the end of the event, when a couple of reporters yelled questions about his plans, Biden didn’t respond. An unidentified man in the audience, though, let his own feelings known: “Run, Joe!”

Continue reading "In Miami, Joe Biden gets feel for what campaigning again would be like" »

Study sparks more debate over Florida test for students


Florida’s new standardized tests for students administered last year were fair.

Or were they?

An independent review of the Florida Standards Assessment, released Tuesday, has done little to quiet questions about whether the exams are valid.

The answers to those questions are critically important, since so much rides on these test scores — from student promotion to school grades.

State education officials say the new study proves the tests are an accurate way to measure student performance. Among the findings: that the state followed best practices to create its tests and individual exam questions were error-free.

As a result, scores will be baked into state-issued grades for schools and teacher evaluations.

“I believe it is in the best interest of our students that we move forward based on the results of this year’s FSA,” said Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

But local education leaders point to the very same study to confirm concerns about the exams.

“...Superintendents stand firm behind their initial position that the results of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) cannot fairly be used in teacher evaluations or to calculate A-F grades for public schools,” John Ruis, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents said in a statement.

Lawmakers ordered the analysis of the FSAs after a rough debut last school year.

Technical woes and even a cyber attack prevented students from logging on to the computerized exams; others were booted off mid-test.

In May, the education department awarded an almost $600,000 contract to study whether the FSAs were fair. In 90 days, the companies Alpine Testing Solutions and edCount sorted through hundreds of documents and conducted interviews to come to their conclusions.

The main findings:

▪ Test scores for some students may be “suspect” because of the technical glitches, so the results shouldn’t be the only factor schools consider when making high-stakes decisions such as whether a student should be held back a grade, denied a high school diploma or placed in remedial classes.

▪ On the other hand, only a small percentage of students were impacted, so the test results can be used to issue schools grades and evaluate teachers. Between one and five percent of students taking each test on a computer were affected, the study estimates. 

More here.

Education budget chairman says more standardized testing reforms are coming

In 2016, expect standardized testing reform to be front and center among the Legislature's education deliberations yet again.

After an effort in the 2015 session eliminated some tests students have to take that lawmakers said were duplicates, state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the education budget chairman and former Senate president, says he's going after even more.

It doesn't make sense for the state to require students to take tests proving they have mastered a subject that has already been tested on a well known, national exam like the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, Gaetz said. A bill he says he will introduce would allow those exams to replace other mandated tests.

But he's also trying to inspire more reforms down the road and make it clear to Education Commissioner Pam Stewart that the Legislature is focused on the issue.

"We weren't able to get the commissioner of education's attention last year," Gaetz said. "But maybe if we pass a law, maybe we could get her attention."

The 2015 legislation eliminated an 11th grade English test and capped the number of hours students can spend on state-mandated testing. But the Times/Herald reported in April that Republican lawmakers were reluctant to go much further to alter an education accountability system first created by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Gaetz, a self-described "Bush accolyte" says his reforms wouldn't shine a bad light on the Republican presidential hopeful's education legacy in Florida.

"Gov. Bush believes in high standards, he believes in fair assessments, but he also believes in better tests and fewer tests," Gaetz said. "And that's what we're talking about ... Florida scraping some of the barnacles off our hull."

August 28, 2015

UM biotech park seeking $10M from Miami-Dade taxpayers


The University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park wants to expand — and it wants county taxpayers to help pay for it.

The university’s partner developer, Wexford Miami LLC, is asking the county for $10 million in economic development grants. In return, the project is promising to create a 14-story, 244,000-square-foot expansion of its biotech park, which first opened in 2011.

The $112 million plan includes a hotel and a 646-car parking garage. In the developer’s application with the county, it promises the biotech project would create 476 jobs by the end of 2022. The UM biotech center is located near Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The proposal had its first public unveiling on Thursday, when an economic development committee of Miami-Dade County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the project’s request. Commissioners Xavier Suarez, Bruno Barreiro, and Audrey Edmonson voted in favor, Commissioners Dennis Moss and Rebeca Sosa voted against.

“It’s bringing a lot of jobs,” said Edmonson, who sponsored the proposal.

More here.

August 15, 2015

For-profit colleges tied to Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush

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@MrMikeVasquez @PatriciaMazzei

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign spent the past week touting her new plan to make college affordable — in part by cracking down on “predatory” colleges, and forcing schools to “spend federal dollars on things that benefit students, like teaching and research, not marketing campaigns.”

What Clinton didn’t mention: Her husband Bill has been paid more than $16 million as “honorary chancellor” of Laureate Education, the world’s largest for-profit college company. The firm is being sued by several online graduate students for allegedly dishonest practices, and a 2012 U.S Senate report found that more than half of Laureate’s online Walden University revenue went to marketing and profit.

Republicans quickly went on the attack. “Clinton’s College Hypocrisy Tour Rolls On” read the subject line from a Republican National Committee e-mail to reporters. 

What the RNC didn’t mention: The GOP field of 2016 presidential hopefuls is filled with candidates who have close ties to for-profit colleges. Marco Rubio listed two for-profit executives (and the industry’s former top Florida lobbyist) as “contributors” to his 2006 book,100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future. Jeb Bush gave a keynote speech at the for-profit industry’s Washington trade association last year, for which he was paid $51,000. 

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is being sued by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his now-shuttered “Trump University” business school. Schneiderman has said Trump University used false promotional materials and “was a scam from top to bottom.”

Trump denies the allegations, and says the investigation by Schneiderman, a Democrat, is politically motivated. 

In Florida and across the country, students who say they were victimized by for-profits are usually poor or working class. Many are single moms, or military veterans. 

More here.

Photo credit: Peter Andrew Bosch, Miami Herald staff

July 15, 2015

No HS diploma? No problem! Some colleges accept you anyway.


It’s a term that sounds like a form of street crime: “Snatch and grab.”

At Miami’s FastTrain College, that’s how some employees described the recruiting of students. Prosecutors say FastTrain’s recruiters, some of them former exotic dancers, would drive around poor neighborhoods trying to cajole the men on street corners or at bus stops into jumping into a car for a trip to the school.

“It’s called snatch and grab, man, snatch and grab, baby,” said Anthony Mincey, a former assistant admissions director, on a phone call that was secretly recorded by federal investigators.

Mincey and three other employees at the for-profit college, including former CEO Alejandro Amor, are facing criminal charges of conspiracy and theft of government money. Regardless of the outcome, the federal trial — scheduled to begin in two months — promises to be a primer on how to fraudulently obtain federal education grants and loans.

The alleged fraud at the heart of the FastTrain case — improperly enrolling students who lack a high school diploma or its equivalent — has been an issue at other Florida for-profit colleges. Billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded financial aid are at stake. 

At some for-profit colleges, students are allowed to enroll simply by stating they completed high school — without providing any sort of proof. The student just signs an “attestation” form that they have a diploma.

“Anyone can walk in there and say ‘I graduated from Orlando High School in 1987 or whatever,’ and that’s good enough,” said Pat Elston, a former recruiter for Southern Technical College.

More here.