Education

Controversial standardized tests debut in Florida schools

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent has urged lawmakers to slow down the implementation of new standardized tests. “We need to question if we have gone too far, too fast,” he recently told a Florida Senate education committee. He is picture here at the 21st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 5000 Role Models of Excellence Unity Scholarship Breakfast in January.
Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent has urged lawmakers to slow down the implementation of new standardized tests. “We need to question if we have gone too far, too fast,” he recently told a Florida Senate education committee. He is picture here at the 21st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 5000 Role Models of Excellence Unity Scholarship Breakfast in January. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

More students are expected to flunk. School districts warn they might not be ready. And parents are threatening to boycott.

Ready or not — and many school boards, parents and teachers have been screaming to lawmakers that they’re not — Florida will roll out its new, much debated standardized tests on Monday.

The Florida Department of Education is forging ahead, even with a host of unknowns hanging in the air. Students, for instance, don’t even know what score they’ll have to make to pass.

“We need to question if we have gone too far, too fast,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently told a Florida Senate education committee.

The new tests are called the Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA. They replace the also-controversial Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as FCAT. The state developed the new tests after adopting new education standards.

Students in grades 4 through 10 will begin taking the writing portion of the test on Monday. Between March 23 and May 8, kids in grades 3 through 10 will take an English language arts test, and students in grades 3 through 8 will be given a math test. The tests last from one to two hours.

To build the FSAs, Florida bought questions that were field-tested in Utah, where student demographics are much different. More than half of the students who took the Utah tests failed, and that state is now debating whether to dump their test.

Students struggled because the new standards are much harder and the tests are much different.

For example, under the FCAT writing tests, students responded to a prompt that was a few sentences long. Now, students will have to read a passage — sometimes multiple passages — and respond.

Kaitlyn Pujols, a sophomore at Miami Lakes Educational Center, said the new tests require students to know more vocabulary. During a practice run at her school, some students struggled with reading the longer passages.

“There were students who had the class their last period, and even though the time was over, they were still in the library taking the last test,” she said.

Another big difference is that many of the tests will be administered on computers, which could pose technical challenges for both students and school districts.

Students will be required to drag and drop items using a mouse and type up essays using a keyboard, potentially giving an advantage to kids who are more computer literate or have better access to technology.

“That’s an equity issue,” said Gisela Feild, Miami-Dade’s administrative director of assessment, research and data analysis.

The computer component is also a major problem for some school districts who have a limited number of machines or bad Internet connections. Superintendents across the state have warned they may not be ready, or may not be able to complete testing within the required time frame.

Miami-Dade says it has enough computers and its technology will hold up — but it faces another problem. Computer labs won’t be available for teaching and learning for weeks at a time while testing is taking place.

“Labs that are normally used for instructional purposes have to be purposed for testing,” said Sally Shay, district director for assessment research and data analysis.

Also, no one will know whether the test provider’s servers will be able to handle the traffic as kids all across the state go online to access the exams. Last year, testing was thrown into chaos because of computer glitches. That involved a different testing company, though.

A lot rides on these tests. Third-grade students can be retained if they fail. High school students can be denied a diploma. And teachers, whose evaluations depend on test scores, can be axed.

Only the schools themselves have been given a slight reprieve. The consequences of their state-issued grades, based on test scores, will be frozen for a year.

School districts and teachers unions have asked for at least another year until scores are factored into such high-stakes decisions. They want to make sure the tests are reliable and fair. That usually means comparing results with a base year. But since this is the first year of the test, no baseline data exist.

“It’s bad all around,” said United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram.

With such credibility issues, and the high-stakes involved, some parents are abandoning the tests in a nationwide movement. These “Opt-Out” parents have coached their kids to simply not answer any questions on the tests.

They are up against Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who warned in a recent letter: “State law requires students to participate in the state assessment system.”

“Parents are afraid. This is a big thing that they’re doing,” said Suzette Lopez, a parent who helps run the Opt-Out group in Miami-Dade. “They’re just doing it to protect their kids because there are just so many unknowns.”

Some school districts are making accommodations for kids who refuse to take the test. In Brevard County, kids will be allowed to leave the testing room. In Lee County, students will be allowed to read during the the testing period. In Miami-Dade, students will have to sit in the same room and wait out the testing period, Feild said.

Kids who fail or don’t take the FSA have other options. They can be promoted to the next grade based on a portfolio of work or by passing certain other tests. But they also may be targeted for remedial courses.

It’s unclear how many parents will follow through on their promises to boycott, and the movement in Miami-Dade isn’t as strong as it is in other Florida districts. But Lopez said the days before the test have prompted a flurry of calls from parents.

“There’s a lot of noise and a lot of push. Whether or no they do it is another thing,” she said.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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