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A weekend interview about end-of-course exams with Florida Rep. Dwight M. Bullard



Bullard As momentum picks up for end-of-course exams in Florida high schools, state Democrats seek to influence the outcome. Rep. Dwight Bullard of Miami filed legislation this month that would tie the move to these exams with the end of the FCAT as a graduation requirement. Bullard spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his initiative.

Which are you looking at? End of course, or end of year?

It would sort of be a hybrid, if you will. Because one issue we targeted last year was if at the end of the year the student takes the exam (and fails), would they have to repeat the entire class. And the answer is no. If they completed the year of Biology I they would be able to take the test at the end of the course ... but if they were unable to pass the Biology I exam at the end of the year, then they would be able to take it again. So it sort of represents an end-of-course, end-of-year model.

Why are you looking at doing it this way? Giving this period of time to get everything done. I thought that was what was already in place. How does what you have differ from what the DOE has been talking about doing in creating end-of-course exams?

The way we address it in the bill is we talked with stakeholders, whether it's FEA, whether it's PTA. We even went so far as to get the occasional student input to sort of see what's the best way to go about it. What's happened in the past is teachers are not - I can definitely speak for myself as a teacher - we haven't been given enough leeway to sort of make the adjustment in the classroom. Generally at the beginning of the year someone will come in and say, 'We're going to be doing it this way this year. I hope everyone is ready.' We hope we gave enough lead time for individuals to sort of operate. That's why we have a five-year window with full implementation in 2014-15.

Why do away with the FCAT as an exit-level final exam?

We want to put the emphasis back on learning in the classroom, for the actual course. We've seen this phenomenon of teachers having to teach to the test, and the test being tied to the success of the school, the success of the teacher and ultimately the success of the student in the sense that students need to pass just one snapshot test in order to graduate. Movement in this direction and phasing out of the FCAT allows academic freedom to come back into the classroom. If I'm teaching biology, if I'm teaching algebra, I'm teaching the course and you know over that year you're going to have to learn from the course in order to pass this end-of-the-year exam, as opposed to this test that may not measure individualized courses.

Would these exams be developed locally, or would they be developed along state guidelines?

DOE would definitely play a significant role in the development of end-of-course exams so we can sort of match up our standards, match up the direction we want to go in. It really puts us on par with the rest of the country. Because this is a movement that has sort of been looming, and we're just trying to get on board with the overall push toward academic excellence across all 50 states, and the rest of the world for that matter. If we can sort of not have a sort of broken approach, and what I mean by broken is the rest of the country doing its own individual thing, we don't have to look at comparing our students to the lower percentile or even the upper percentile across the United States. We can start looking at how do Florida students rank worldwide.

Would these then tie into the common core that everyone is looking at developing nationally?

Yes. These would parallel what's going on with the common core movement.

What would you say about the accountability piece that is in the Race to the Top, then? Would the exam scores be used to evaluate not only student performance but teacher performance?

Not entirely. We embrace the 50-50 model at the high school level. We're trying to de-emphasize testing overall. And sort of look at the composite of the entire year for the student. Looking at portfolios. Looking at achievement in AP courses, IB courses, higher level courses, and taking a look at the overall student as opposed to just limiting that one student to one day or one week's worth of testing.

Would this be the final exam, then, as opposed to a teacher's final exam?

It could be used in that sense. At the end of the day, a teacher wants to be able to have some say-so in the way they develop the course. That could happen with the mid-year exam. ... They could absolutely adopt this as their final exam scores. But at the end of the day, the weighting or the grading of that student will be determined not so much by the end of course exam but by the overall assessment of the student in terms of how well they were able to grasp the subject matter.

Don't the Republicans have another bill on this? Would they be competing bills? Or are you working to combine them? Because I know there's been debate on this for a couple of years.

It has. And yes, the majority party has put forth bills like this in the past. But what we have sort of done differently is, we wanted to make sure all of the stakeholders were involved in the process. That was very important for me, personally. And the phasing out of the FCAT was a major component we wanted to make sure we addressed. Last year's bill was an increase of FCAT requirements that was sort of a sticking point. We all want increased rigor for our students in the sense that we want our students to achieve at the highest levels. But we want to make sure that achievement isn't undercut by a snapshot sort of test that has too heavy of an emphasis. More importantly, we want to take a realistic approach toward the funding as well. Last year, it was sort of this could happen with no fiscal impact. Democrats understand that education has a price tag attached to it. We welcome the true assessing of the fiscal cost of doing the right thing for Florida students.

As far as an exit level exam for high school, would it be something that would be completely gone? Or would we say the SAT and ACT can suffice? What would happen there?

The end-of-course, end-of-year model would serve as the exit exam, if you will. If the student has shown sufficient progress in a particular subject area, you can get a good assessment as to how well they have navigated or matriculated through high school. At the end of the day, we don't want to stifle a student that has let's say a 3.3 (grade point average) but isn't a good test taker. What this makes an allowance for is that student who maybe had a bad day won't be demonized or won't be thrown to the side, if you will. Because that is the problem that exists now. A student who has performed well throughout the year may be sidetracked or sort of cast away because of their inability to perform on (the FCAT).

So they could actually graduate without passing any of these tests?

No, no, no. I'm not saying that at all. The test won't be the primary means of assessing student progress. We want to look at more, like I said, a larger composite. We want to look at the student's total progress over the course of his or her high school matriculation.

So it would be up to a high school teacher's assessment of what they've done in the class - over a portfolio, over tests, over everything - and less emphasis on a statewide measurement?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

How do you assess the chances of this actually making it through, knowing that a lot of the Legislature is still on that Jeb Bush "if you don't measure, you don't care" kind of attitude?

Well, what we hope is we can get bipartisan participation in the conversation. We know that we do share some similarities with Republican proposals. The hope is that we can meet at a real safe space in the middle where we can really start to address the issue. Because I think we all want to see the best education for Florida students. But I think we want to start looking at this in realistic terms. When can implementation happen? How much will implementation cost? And what is the overall cost to students, teachers, and all stakeholders in the process? We want to make sure that every student in Florida gets a fair and equal chance at success, a high school diploma. We hear all the time about needing upper-level degrees in order to find better jobs. ... We want to make sure we don't diminish the chances of students in the state of Florida from achieving that goal at square one.


[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:45am]


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