Timeout needed on testing in Florida’s public schools

PAULA DOCKERY

by: Paula Dockery, Guest Columnist|Tampa Tribune

September 24, 2015

The results are in, and the conclusion is — well, it’s confusing.

The long-awaited validity study of Florida Standard Assessment tests, as requested by the Legislature, has been released. And the conclusions are clear as mud.

Without going into great detail, here is a quick summary of education testing policy in Florida over the past few years.

In 2010, the state adopted the Common Core Standards and started to ease into the new standards and the test to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. By 2014, opposition to Common Core standards reached a fevered pitch. Voters made their opposition to Common Core an election-year issue. Gov. Rick Scott, concerned about the vocal and growing opposition, needed to appear to be addressing its concerns.

Scott’s handpicked education commissioner, the third or fourth since he took office, was instructed to find a solution. Commissioner Pam Stewart suggested a rebranding was in order. Instead of the Common Core standards that denoted the dreaded national standards not specific to Florida, our standards — eerily similar — would be called the Florida Standards, and our assessment tool would be called the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). Stewart and her team made a few adjustments to the Common Core standards and, poof, problem solved.

That seemed to appease enough voters for the time being so they moved on to selecting a vendor to develop and administer the test. They selected American Institutes for Research (AIR) and entered into a six-year $220-million contract.

In August 2014, the Lee County School Board voted 3-2 to become the first school district in the state to opt out of all statewide, standardized tests. The superintendent, Nancy Graham, expressed concern, and within a week the school board rescinded its vote by flipping one board member. Other county school districts considered opting out as well but changed their positions as Lee County backtracked.

Meanwhile, parents continued to complain about the over-testing in public schools. The cumulative effect of legislative education policy changes over the years, combined with testing decisions at the district level, led to too much of class time being used for testing and not enough time for teaching.

The Legislature responded with modest changes, eliminating a test or two in a grade or subject area.

Then came the true test — the test itself. In March, the FSA was administered or, more accurately, the state attempted to administer the FSA online.

There were many difficulties. Students weren’t able to take the test on scheduled dates. They started the test but were kicked offline. Or they took tests, but their answers disappeared. It took two months — March and April — to complete the testing.

Because of the testing fiasco, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into what was considered a cyber-attack while the governor and Legislature ordered an independent study of the validity of the test. Alpine Testing Solutions was selected to perform the review and was awarded a $594,000 contract.

First the good news: After six months, FDLE concluded its investigation into the “denial of service” cyber-attack and assured us that no student information was accessed and the content of the assessment was not compromised. The agency couldn’t, however, identify a suspect or a motive in the alleged hacking.

Within days, the independent validity study also was released. We found out a few interesting things. The Department of Education reviewed two drafts of the “independent” report and received the final report before it was released to the public. The department made suggestions over the phone — not in writing — to the 186-page document. The report concluded that the test data could be used for evaluating teachers and grading schools, but noted that individual students’ scores are “suspect.”

Interestingly the state Senate and House had completely different reactions to the presentation of the Alpine report and the department’s role prior to and after its release. The Senate expressed skepticism and sought information from Andrew Wiley, the Alpine official who performed the study. The House showered Commissioner Stewart with praise and presented her with a thank-you note signed by committee members.

The so-called “validity” study begs more questions than it answers: Shouldn’t we have validated the test before administering it? Why wasn’t the proper load testing performed to test computer systems? Why were drafts of the “independent report” shared with the department prior to its release? Why isn’t there a paper trail between Alpine and the Department of Education? Did the department change anything substantively in the report? How can the test results be validated for use in school grading and teacher evaluation but not for individual testing performance?

State Sen. John Legg, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said it’s time to stop “harping” on problems during state standardized testing. I couldn’t disagree more. Keep harping.

Isn’t it time to learn from our mistakes? Let’s take a timeout from high-stakes testing until the state gets it right.

Read article here.

 

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