By Tia Mitchell

State officials now say some of the problems last week with the new online testing system for Florida students were due to a cyber-attack. The attack was detected Thursday at American Institutes for Research, the Washington, D.C.-based company that produces the test after winning a six-year state contract worth $220 million.

Unrelated technical difficulties earlier in the week caused test administrators across the state to have trouble logging into the new system or kicked students off it prematurely. Thursday's cyber-attack was characterized by widespread reports of blank "white screens" after students logged in.

The problem didn't last long, and most students were able to complete the writing portion of the Florida Standards Assessment (AIR) if they began it that day.

Florida Education Commission Pam Stewart said she immediately contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after learning the testing issues were related to cyber-attacks.

"The Department has been working with FDLE since last Thursday when we were notified about the problem, and 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 prepared statement. "We are holding daily conference calls with AIR to ensure they immediately address any flaws or attacks on our system as we move forward in this second week of testing."

FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said his department's Cyber-Crimes Squad has been working to determine the origin of the attack and identify suspects.

"This investigation is to be a priority for our Cyber-Crime Squad and we consulted with our counterparts at the FBI," he said in the prepared statement. "If suspects are identified, we will work with prosecutors to ensure the perpetrators are held accountable."

More than half of Florida's districts stopped testing at least one day last week, and some, like Duval County, suspended testing for two days. American Institutes for Research said the denial of service, or DoS, cyber-attack did not compromise any student data and won't affect students' scores. The company also took responsibility for the technical glitches on Monday and Tuesday and worked to address Florida's concerns.

Despite those issues, more than 60 percent of eighth, ninth and 10th graders registered to take the test did so in the first week of a two-week window.

Students will use the new system over the next several weeks for language arts and math tests under the new Florida standards, as well as some high school end-of-course exams.

Even before last week's uneven rollout, the Florida Education Association was critical of the new online tests, saying the transition was rushed and didn't give students and teachers enough time to familiarize themselves with the new technology. FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said the news of a cyber-attack increased the need for safeguards.

"It kind of points out the fact that a paper and pencil option is pretty essential if you want to be successful with the test," he said.

Staff writer Denise Smith Amos contributed to this report.

(c)2015 The Florida Times-Union