Education

School day, interrupted: Computer-based testing overtaking some classes in Miami-Dade, other counties

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Business technology teacher Antonio White is supposed to teach middle and high school students how to type on a computer keyboard and use the full suite of Microsoft Office programs.

But on many days, he doesn’t have access to computers. They’ve been usurped for Florida’s standardized testing.

“There’s not a lot of teaching going on this semester. It’s like school is over,” said White, who teaches at José Martí MAST 6-12 Academy.

Ever since the Florida Department of Education mandated that many tests be taken on a computer, school districts have warned that the decree would come with a cost: lots of lost instructional time.

The prediction has come true, according to many teachers, students and parents.

At Coral Gables Senior High, students say they get sent to the auditorium or even multiple lunches while teachers are busy giving tests. At Palmetto Middle School, students spend hours in the same classroom, at times without a lesson. At José Martí, half the students can be missing from any given class because they’re out taking an exam.

“I share the frustration of parents and teachers and students alike, because it’s an issue I declared to the state upfront,” said Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “During the testing window, teaching time and access to technology takes second place, unfortunately.”

With a limited number of computers available at many schools, it takes more days to administer exams. In the meantime, computers that would be used to teach kids Excel or how to conduct research online are tied up for testing.

Renny Perez, a senior at Gables High, signed up for a visual design class hoping to learn how to edit pictures using programs like Adobe Illustrator. But he hasn’t touched a computer in that class since March, he said.

“It’s just testing, they need the computers for testing,” he said. “If we had more computers available, I feel like I would have learned more.”

Vasco Pinto De-Sousa, a sophomore at Gables High, said he has missed two days of his accounting class, where students use online tools as part of the curriculum.

“We went to the auditorium and we did nothing because we couldn’t use the computers,” he said, adding that he had to make up work later to help bring up his grade.

Even courses that don’t depend on computers are impacted, because teachers are often needed to proctor tests. Brandee Foxworthy said her daughter, a fourth-grader at Howard Drive Elementary, has only been to her Spanish class twice in the past nine weeks because the teacher is a proctor.

Foxworthy, who also has two sons at Palmetto Middle, said the glitches that have plagued the state’s new standardized tests have also contributed to the problem. After her son’s math test crashed eight times while he tried to take it Monday, the testing window was extended for 20 minutes, she said. That made him late to his next class.

“We’re spending so much time on testing that every moment in the classroom is precious,” Foxworthy said.

School districts warned this would happen. The state now requires that the Florida Standards Assessments in math, reading and writing be given on computers. Students in grades five through 10 take the tests online.

Before testing kicked off in March, district superintendents wrote to Education Commissioner Pam Stewart about their concerns.

“When schools have testing ‘days,’ instruction and learning abruptly stop,” wrote Hardee County Superintendent David D. Durastanti.

“Lack of computers for testing has forced us to use labs where students work, which impacts computer-based instruction,” wrote Highlands County Superintendent Wally Cox.

“Media centers are closed for six to eight weeks to accommodate testing and, therefore, are closed for students to do research or even to check out a book for recreational reading,” wrote former Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who has since left the district.

In an email, Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins said it’s “essential” to have some testing and noted that districts have flexibility to decide how to schedule the exams within the testing window.

“During the testing windows, the Department believes that it is in the best interest of our state’s students for those who are not participating in testing to continue learning,” she wrote.

School officials in Miami-Dade say the county is better off than others, thanks to $200 million in investments in technology and Internet access, funded in part by a massive general obligation bond. Through the program, the district has distributed more than 50,000 digital devices to students.

“The collateral damage has been that we have not been able to capitalize as much as we would have wanted to,” said Miami-Dade’s Chief Academic Officer Marie Izquierdo. “Our computers and our labs have been kind of held hostage to the whole computer-based testing initiative.”

This legislative session, Sens. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, tried to persuade lawmakers to go back to paper-and-pencil tests. Their push came shortly after the FSAs debuted to massive computer glitches, but the proposal failed.

White, the business technology teacher, said doing away with computerized testing would solve many of the problems of lost instructional time.

“The best way would be to have an option to do paper-and-pencil testing, because we could pretty much test a whole grade level in one day,” he said.

Carvalho, the superintendent, said he understands the state’s push to computer-based testing. But he said he would support a paper-and-pencil option for students who have limited access to technology at home because that could skew test results.

“We cannot ignore that not all students will sit for a computer-based test with the same level of technological ability on the keyboard,” he said.

Follow @cveiga on Twitter.

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