What do some students do during FCAT testing? Watch movies and play board games

It’s testing season at Dr. Michael Krop High School. Which means it’s also movie season.

Each morning for the last three weeks as teachers prepare to administer Florida’s standardized tests, scores of displaced students shuffle into the auditorium where the day’s matinee is projected onto a big, pull-down screen. Films include Disney’s Frozen, Fast and Furious, Life According to Sam, and — sigh — repeats.

“I’ve been going almost every day for the past month for every single third period,” said Sam Apel, a 16-year-old junior whose accounting classroom at the Northeast Miami-Dade school has been turned into a testing computer lab. “It’s horrible. Miserable.”

The seasonal cinema — which one student referred to on Twitter as “auditorium days” — is an unintended consequence of Florida’s high-stakes testing program. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and end-of-course exams last for weeks and now require that most FCAT and upcoming end-of-course exams be taken on secure computers in controlled environments monitored by teachers.

Problem is, students who would otherwise be in those teachers’ classes or in the converted testing labs have to go somewhere when they aren’t testing. So they sometimes end up in auditoriums and gymnasiums, or in classes playing board games. In some schools, teachers say classes are “frozen” in place for hours or even the entire day to avoid distractions, turning schools into a quasi-daycares.

“It’s a huge disruption,” said Janel Jackson-Lefebvre, a seventh-grade science teacher at Hialeah Gardens Middle. “We can’t do what we’re paid to do, which is teach.”

Florida Department of Education officials say that nothing about testing forces teachers to become babysitters. And Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said stories of students idly watching movies by the hundreds are likely “an extreme minority rather than a generality.”

But frustrated students, parents and teachers say the logistics of testing hundreds or sometimes thousands of students at a school have turned testing time into a morass. And disruptions are expected to only grow in 2015, when the state requires for the first time that all public school courses include an end-of-year test chosen by school districts.

“Imagine a high school with 3,000 kids in a six-period day. That’s 18,000 courses,” said Gisela Feild, who heads up assessment, research and data analysis for Miami-Dade schools.

Feild and Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie both said it isn’t yet clear how South Florida’s school districts will handle the expected influx of tests next year, but schools are slowly getting better at addressing increased technology requirements. In Miami-Dade, for instance, the school district began deploying 50 “carts” of 25 computers each to schools like Barbara Goleman and G. Holmes Braddock high schools to create mobile testing labs.

Still, students, parents and teachers from more than a dozen South Florida schools told the Miami Herald that students are either missing crucial classes or playing board games and watching movies for long periods as schools rearrange their classes to accommodate the state’s assessments. And there are still weeks left of testing.

At Doral Academy Preparatory, Michelle Rousseau said her daughter and her middle school classmates were twice sent to the gymnasium this past week as the school was forced to move students around during testing. Douglas Rodriguez, the school’s principal, said it’s not ideal, but nevertheless one of the ways in which the charter school campus of multiple schools handles Florida’s testing crunch despite having 1,200 computers in the various schools on the Doral Academy campus.

“If there was an easier way for us to do it trust me we’d do it. We’re being forced to come up with an elaborate plan,” said Rodriguez, whose schools have a comprehensive list of where all 3,000 students will be throughout the day during the next two weeks of testing. “The truth is we’re having to displace and move students tremendously.”

Jackson-Lefebvre, the Hialeah Gardens Middle teacher, said her school — like many — freezes class periods during testing to avoid distractions for students taking the tests, the results of which are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Those changes kept her from seeing her second-period class for almost two weeks. And when she did see them again, most didn’t have their bookbags, or any of the materials they needed for her class.

Hialeah Gardens Principal Maritza Jimenez said instruction at her school doesn’t suffer, but Jackson-Lefebvre said some teachers have seen so little of their students they had to scramble to have enough grades to prepare an interim report card. Dade teachers union president Fed Ingram said “those stories are all too common.”

In Broward, Susan Lewis-Ruddy, a social studies teacher at Glades Middle, said students are constantly pulled from her classes to take tests, leaving her with scores of pupils who are behind the rest. The complaint is one echoed by many high school teachers, whose classes are in most cases comprised of students from multiple grade levels.

Many say the problem is only growing as Florida requires that more tests be on computer. At Krop, then-junior Arie Hariton wrote an article last year for The Lightning Strike school newspaper in which he said auditorium days used to be restricted to upperclassmen, and for just one week. These days, “the testing window now extends for two months” and students watch movies for days at a time, he wrote.

Rodriguez, the Doral Academy principal, said he’d like to see the state once again allow Saturday testing, which he said was expensive but helped avoid complications during normal school hours. Some teachers said they’d like to see a return to Scantrons, while others say the state simply needs to pony up more money for computers and infrastructure like bandwidth.

“There’s a huge investment that needs to be made in technology,” said Broward Superintendent Runcie. “You can’t just mandate new tests without providing the tools. That’s just a recipe for disaster, and why should we struggle through that?”

State Rep. Erik Fresen, who chairs the lower chamber’s Education Appropriations Sub-committee, acknowledged that some schools struggle during standardized testing. But he said the state is providing districts enough funding and flexibility to eventually smooth out the kinks in their testing schedules. The House budget this year includes $40 million for technology infrastructure.

Fresen, R-Miami, also sits on a committee that monitors Miami-Dade’s $1.2 billion in bond spending. He said the district is probably in better position than most to deal with Florida’s rush to computer-based tests thanks to bond funds allocated for technology infrastructure. Broward is likely to push its own bond initiative this year, though it’s not yet clear if the proposed $800 million would include dollars for technology.

“I think we’ll kind of wean off the problem,” Fresen said.

Until then, schools may continue to send students to gymnasiums and auditoriums as they try to test everyone in the window allowed by the state. And students will have to stick it out. Or maybe not.

“Eventually, students start to cut,” said Tom Lander, a Krop history teacher. “They just get tired of seeing movies.”

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