Almost anyone who set foot into a Florida classroom last spring knows that the rollout of the new, computer based Florida Standards Assessment was a disaster. Weeks of testing occurred, parents discovered their children had taken a test that was being validated after the fact, there was hacking, log in problems, calculator confusion, entire completed tests were lost, and, in some cases, stress leading to vomiting or worse. In the midst of the testing season, HB7069 passed, promising testing relief that has yet to materialize. Students have returned to classrooms that appear to have more progress monitoring than ever before. It has become apparent that the setting of the “cut scores” (which could determine whether a child graduates or is retained) is based more on politics than proficiency. State Education Commissioner, Pam Stewart, celebrated the release of a mandated FSA validity report that, upon closer inspection, appears ask more validity questions than it answers. Parents, teachers, and students are currently losing any faith they had in Florida’s testing regimen. Is Tallahassee willing to address the real issues regarding our failed Education Accountability System?
There will be much discussion, this legislative session, regarding paper/pencil testing and replacing the FSA with some established nationally normed test. This idea (often referred to as the #SeminoleSolution or the #SunshineSolution) is being spearheaded by Superintendent of Seminole County Schools, Dr. Walt Griffin, and is gathering support from school districts across the state. The paper/pencil option would certainly shorten testing windows and level the playing field for technologically deprived districts. Both Senators Gaetz and Legg have recently come out in favor of investigating the use of well known tests (like the SAT) in place of the FSA. Using nationally respected tests might also garner some favor, and could be appropriate IF the results of such tests were used appropriately.
What is less likely to be discussed is the negative effect that high stakes attached to standardized test scores have on education, as a whole. Replacing one test, that was used inappropriately, with another test, that will also be used inappropriately, will really not solve the existing problems with our accountability system.
Florida NEEDS to have that discussion and now is the time for the conversation.
The primary problem with high stakes, standardized tests is the “high stakes”, not that the test is standardized. The right tests, when used appropriately, can be used to inform instruction. Currently, in Florida, these tests are being used for almost everything but informing instruction (retention, graduation, remediation, merit pay, school grade, etc).
Campbell’s Law (a social science adage first written about in 1976) says “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”. Campbell’s Law predicted the distortion and corruption to the education system when stakes (like retention, merit pay, school grades) are attached to standardized test scores. Florida’s parents have witnessed the narrowing of curriculum as schools increasingly focus primarily on tested subjects. The importance of state testing is emphasized at Back to School Nights. Children are asked to track their own data. Some classes are little more than test prep. These disruptions can be traced back to the high stakes attached to test scores in Florida.
This is not to say that Florida’s Education system should have no accountability at all. School Boards are already held financially accountable with annual audits. Non-test based models to monitor the quality of education systems already exist. In Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Britain, comprehensive school quality reviews, similar to an accreditation process, have been used to assess effectiveness of school practices. Such models can quantify quality educational outcomes without entirely relying on standardized test scores. For example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium (a group of 26 public schools in New York City who have been exempted from almost all of their state’s mandated tests, focusing rather on assessments created by teachers and rooted in project-based curricula, teaching and learning) has demonstrated that such schools outperform other NYC schools while serving a similar population. Such non-test based accountability models should be considered in Florida.
Rather than insist that “testing is here to stay”, Florida needs a serious, state wide, discussion regarding the appropriate use of standardized test data. This should include review of the mandatory third grade retention, graduation requirements, VAM scores, the effect of state mandated EOCs on a student’s GPA, and the A-F school grading system. Florida should consider the use of existing, less test-based accountability systems. Rather than enacting new laws, existing laws with unintended negative consequences should be repealed. REAL education experts, and not just those from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, should be involved.
Only by questioning the stakes attached to student test scores, and addressing their obvious negative consequences, can school boards regain local control of their districts and educators regain control of education for the benefit of students. Senator Legg has suggested no one is asking those questions. I encourage parents and educators, like Dr. Griffin, to question the effectiveness of high stakes testing, ask about non-test based accountability systems and keep asking until the conversation occurs, so that the best solutions can be achieved for Florida’s children.