After 20 years of pushing, expanding and replacing standardized tests, the Florida Legislature has taken its first baby step to reverse the trend. Legislators don’t want to make a big deal of it, though, because one might jump to the conclusion that they caused the mess in the first place.
After ignoring the voices of professional educators, administrators, elected school board members and concerned parents for years, the tipping point has finally occurred with parents screaming about too many tests and threatening to opt out.
Well-intentioned legislators originally supported standardized testing with the honorable goal of ensuring accountability through measuring learning gains.
Since tens of billions of dollars are spent annually to fund public education, they have a fiscal responsibility to spend them wisely. As an assessment tool it made sense.
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But professional educators warned us of some unintended (or perhaps intended) consequences that did come to fruition. They warned that the simple assessment would turn into high-stakes testing — putting too much pressure on students and teachers — and that it would be used for other purposes.
First the Legislature tied students’ grades to the overall grade of the school, creating stigmas for many schools. And while not true in every case, there was a correlation between low-performing schools and low-income student populations.
Next the Legislature targeted teachers through standardized testing by tying their pay and continued employment to their students’ test scores. This was so controversial it took several years and electing a new governor for it to become law.
Why is this unfair? Proponents argued that the teacher’s role is to educate children and if their students don’t perform well it is a reflection of their teaching ability.
But there are a few factors to consider here — the teachers don’t choose their students, students don’t learn in the same way or at the same rate, students move from one teacher one year to a different one the next, and students get vastly different levels of support at home for studying or completing their assignments. In fact, in some homes, students might not have an adult figure that can read or help them with math.
Most importantly, the tests don’t measure the learning gains of each student individually during the time they were with a particular teacher. Instead they measure where the students collectively, as a class and as a school, stand in the aggregate.
If an assessment is to be useful, it needs to be a tool for teachers to use to measure knowledge gains for each student under his or her tutelage. To do this, locally elected school boards required additional tests that would be more useful in assessing each student’s knowledge and individual learning gains.
As the educational experts predicted, high-stakes testing would inevitably lead to teaching to the test. Because the outcome of the standardized tests would affect the child’s promotion, the teacher’s employment status, the teacher’s pay and the school’s grade, it took precedence over actual learning gains. Performing well on a standardized test should not be — but has become — the goal.
Why is it, in education policy, we ignore the professional educators? Maybe it’s because teachers don’t have much money, power or political clout and most are too busy to follow the legislative process.
After years of administering the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT, Florida joined many other states in adopting the Common Core Standards — another major change in education policy — and with it a new test. Again the professional educators and concerned parents warned that the new test, the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA), should be thoroughly tested for reliability before being used for high-stakes purposes. And again they were ignored.
Over the past two months the FSA testing was disrupted twice. In round one the problem was attributed to computer hacking. Really? And in the latest testing period there were connectivity issues that Education Commissioner Pam Stewart blamed on the vendor. In both cases prepared students were put on hold.
Education advocates pleaded for students and teachers to be held harmless. The answer was no. They asked for testing to be suspended — again the answer was no.
Colleen Wood, founder of the group 50th No More, asked, “What reasonable adult can defend FSA as a valid measure of student growth or teacher effectiveness?” Good question -- not me.
Wood was on target when she added, “It is only proof of the disaster caused when politics drives education policy.”
Every dollar used for standardized school testing drains funds from our classrooms to the benefit of vendors with the money, power and influence to steer education policy.
The testing reform bill made some positive changes but we have a long way to go. In the meantime, teachers have every right to say, “We told you so.”
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.