A weekend interview with ...
Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest. A longtime critic of high-stakes testing, Schaeffer, who lives in Sanibel, has joined forces with the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform in pressing for changes in the FCAT system. The group has gained attention in Tallahassee lately, even earning a seat on the DOE's advisory panel. Schaeffer talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about how Florida's testing culture might be turning a corner.
JS: How did you get involved with this particular issue, because we know you more on a national scene?
BS: Well, I live in Florida. And I've been connected to FCAR since they were established. I've been to and spoken at their statewide convention and participate on their email list. When I saw the initial wave of coverage ... when the state Department of Education admitted that last year's FCAT had been mis-scored I talked to a number of reporters about that. I was invited to be on a conference call with the FCAR board ... where we worked out the strategy that resulted in the letter.
JS: The idea behind the letter then is to hold their feet to the fire? Or are you looking for something more than that?
BS: It is designed to take advantage of the media and policy maker interest in the FCAT, to use the incident to open up the larger question about the exam's design, administration and use.
JS: Tell people who might not know all the details what these questions are.
BS: From the FairTest perspective, the FCAT is probably the most misused test in the country. The testing industry itself ... warns against using any test as the sole or primary factor to make high stakes judgments about students, teachers, schools, educational systems. Despite that, Florida politicians have chosen consciously to misuse the FCAT for grade promotion and retention, high school graduation, school grades, teacher bonuses and the like. All of which violate the standards of the testing profession. And we see the enhanced focus on FCAT because of the scoring error as an opportunity to explain how Florida misuses the FCAT.
JS: Is there a good use for the FCAT? Is FCAT a good test?
BS: I don't think anybody knows, and that's another problem with the FCAT. Unlike many other tests in which all aspects of the test are transparent - not just the test questions and answers, which belatedly have been made public, but the technical manual, information about how the tests are designed, scored and scaled - nobody has any idea on the FCAT. Nobody being policy makers, in most cases media, independent experts, parents, teachers, how the number of answers a student gets right on the FCAT are translated into an FCAT score, and how the sum of FCAT scores in a school translate into a school grade. Apparently, the formula changes from year to year. Meaning that it's subject to political manipulation.
JS: Do you really think that they are politically manipulating it?
BS: Without the information you can't be certain. But we do know that Florida has been involved in testing gamesmanship. For example with the requirement for adequate yearly progress that has been set for No Child Left Behind. Florida instead of choosing a steadily upward path for progress, has set up a system where stable performance is expected for years and then a sudden jump under some other politician's watch is built into the system.
JS: Do you think it's a conspiracy theory type thing? Like, Jeb Bush did it because he wants to look good?
BS: For many politicians, high-stakes testing becomes a quick, simple and, in our view, wrong solution to serious educational problems. And because it is a a political tool, there is a tendency to manipulate results to make the politicians look like they're doing something for education. The truth is, despite increasing scores on the FCAT over time, other readings of Florida's educational performance are much less positive. Our college admissions scores have the worst trend line in the country. Where average SAT scores have gone up nationally, they've gone down in Florida by the greatest amount in any other state. Part of that is explained by demographics. But not all of it.
JS: Looking at AP exams as well, we always have high participation rates but not high passing rates.
BS: Right. Politicians have an incentive to give the illusion of progress and manipulate data to create that message. It's not just Florida.
JS: How do think we've come to this point now where they've said, "Yeah, we messed up," and this whole thing is blowing up?
BS: The Department of Education does deserve credit for telling the truth about last year's error after repeated denial. Recall there had been questions raised about the spike last year and more than a week before the admission superintendents in many districts raised the flag about why scores plunged as they did. We have seen ... growing frustration with the damage the FCAT fixation has done to our schools among parents, teachers and increasingly the media. And the admitted misscoring of last year's grade 3 exam, like the revelation that some FCAT scorers lacked the proper credentials last year, catalyzed those concerns into a demand for changing public policy. ...
FairTest has been around for 22 years now. We've expressed concerns about high-stakes testing fixation that has swept the country. We agree with (the saying) that all complicated problems usually have simple solutions and they're usually wrong. This is a perfect example of that adage.
JS: So what's the next step?
BS: At the Florida level or nationally? In a number of states there are growing movements to roll back high stakes testing requirements and return assessments to their proper purpose, which is as a tool to improve teaching and learning in which standardized tests are one factor among multiple measures used for accountability. ... Whether the FCAT as it is now designed would be adequate to be used as part of a comprehensive accountability system, I don't think we know. ...
JS: I wonder how Florida's situation plays into the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.
BS: That's exactly why I asked you local or national. Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, and I have been spending an awful lot of time in Washington. ... Because state tests like the FCAT are often used for the determination of adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, the arguments against high stakes state-mandated testing and national testing dovetail in many cases. One of the problems with No Child Left Behind is its reliance on flawed state tests like the FCAT or the TAKS in Texas. And to the extent that problems are demonstrated in the state test, it does influence the national debate.