New Law Just The Start Of Changes Needed To Testing Regime

Commencement exercises for area high school students are on the immediate horizon, and for those about to walk across the stage donned in cap and gown, escape from the complex world of high-stakes testing cannot come soon enough. For those students still stuck in Florida’s increasingly strange quagmire of standardized testing, don’t be fooled by the recent public shift among leaders in Tallahassee. Despite a long-overdue decision to place limits on such testing by the state legislature, and its subsequent signing into law by Gov. Rick Scott last month, there will still be far too much emphasis on these tests.

The measure signed by Scott limits the amount of testing that can be done in public schools, including a firm cap of 45 hours of state-authorized testing per year. The changes represent a departure for Tallahassee, because it is a step back from some of the reforms championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. It no longer makes the post-secondary (PERT) test mandatory, and eliminates the 11th grade language arts test and some end-of-course (EOC) exams. “I agree with many teachers and parents who say we have too many tests, and while this legislation is a great step forward, we will keep working to make sure Florida students are not over tested,” Scott said.

The law also reduced the weight of student test scores on teacher evaluations, from 50 percent to a third, and mandated that a commission assess the validity of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) testing.

But the policy shift fails to resolve many other issues connected to implementing a rushed and improperly analyzed computerized program at the school level — problems that were long foreseen by critics of high-stakes testing, who pointed out that such testing was being implemented without proper trial runs and without knowing exactly how the system would work. Both parents and teachers across the state have implored the legislature to use this year’s test results for diagnostic purposes only, calling on Scott to suspend all high-stakes consequences for the current school year — something the governor appears unlikely to do.

Twice in the past two months, the FSA — the not-fully-formed replacement of the long-troubled Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) — crashed and burned due to computer glitches. The initial rollout back in March was marred by technical glitches and reports of an alleged cyber-attack; the second was a series of log-in failures that led many districts, including Palm Beach County, to suspend testing on April 20 and hastily reschedule the lost testing day, which was difficult due to the litany of other such testing that was already occupying the computer labs. Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart blamed the April 20 issue on the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which accepted blame, saying it was “human error” through an unauthorized technical change to the test that led to the problems. The FSA was developed by AIR for a whopping $5.4 million. AIR used recycled questions from a similar venture in Utah, where more than half of the students failed. Palm Beach County School Board Member Frank Barbieri said that Stewart should also accept responsibility for the miscues, lambasting her at an April 22 meeting.

The new law gives districts flexibility to get rid of some standardized tests. Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has already taken advantage of this, recently announcing that he was cutting the number of district-developed EOC exams from 300 to 10 — including all for elementary school — to “restore teaching time” and “respect the educational environment.”

Last summer, the School District of Palm Beach County paid teachers to help develop EOC tests for roughly 50 district courses that did not have a state standardized assessment. Per state mandate, all courses were required to have some sort of standardized assessment by 2016. Many of these tests have not yet been implemented, and now they may never be. County schools here eliminated about a dozen winter diagnostic tests last October, and last month scrapped the work created last summer. The state still requires six high school EOC exams in math, science and history, and these still count for 30 percent of a student’s semester grade. Add in a battery of International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and Cambridge AICE exams, plus the FSA, and students are still subjected to a stressful overabundance of rigorous testing.

One possible solution: districts “opting out” of state testing altogether. Several Florida districts, including Seminole County, are exploring use of exams such as the SAT — with its strong, proven track record — in place of the FSA. We encourage incoming Palm Beach County School Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa and the school board to consider a similar path and help stop the insanity taking place in district classrooms.