Think about blood when it comes to testing in schools, says John Legg, chairman of the Florida Senate's Education Committee. Most children get a blood test every so often. If something is wrong, doctors do more tests.
"But we don't give everyone a blood test for everything all the time," he says. And that should be the case for reading, math and science.
Legg, who contends Florida students are over-tested, is sponsoring a bill that would prevent school districts from giving their own assessments to students two weeks before or after a state exam, like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. His concern is that students, feeling fatigue, won't meet their potential on critical tests.
"My view is the validity of those assessments go down when you have too many tests to take," says Legg, a Republican from Trinity. "I use the old Christmas tree analogy, that after a while it's 'well, here's another assessment.' "
But critics say students aren't taxed so much by the number of tests as they are by the high stakes attached to them. They blame the state for driving any testing frenzy.
Calendars in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough elementary schools show that some type of exam is administered to different sets of students nearly every week throughout the second semester.
In Hillsborough, a third-grade student could take up to six standardized tests before sitting down for the FCAT in the spring. In Pasco, the testing period for the district's fourth standardized assessment begins one week after the FCAT period ends.
"I know in Pasco they do a great job, (but) I question whether they're needed four times a year on top of other assessments the district needs — on top of the assessments the state needs," Legg says.
Maureen Otteni, a teacher at Westgate Elementary in St. Petersburg, said Legg's bill would help only minimally. What's needed, she says, is a cap on the overall number of days students can be tested by the state or districts. Otteni teaches kindergarten, first- and second-grade students who are learning English.
Her first-graders get tested 45 days out of the 180-day school year, she says. "That's huge. I don't know if the public really knows how much testing really does go on … and it gets worse every year."
Districts and parents see local over-testing as a symptom of state actions. The power given to the FCAT — it determines a school's grade and a teacher's performance evaluation — forces schools to hyper-test to prepare students for the state exam, says Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of Fund Education Now, a network of thousands of parents and activists across Florida.
"There's a relationship between the high stakes placed on that one test and all those other things," Oropeza says. "To stretch (testing) out and say maybe they shouldn't give so many tests misses the forest for the trees."
Pam Moore, an associate superintendent in Pinellas, said it would be unfair of the state to limit how and when a district prepares for the state assessment. She refers to the FCAT results as "autopsy data."
"That's the end of the year, when it's too late to do anything," Moore says. "We do need to progress-monitor along the way, so we can make sure by the time we take FCAT we're feeling good that our kids are going to be successful."
Although Pinellas would consider giving fewer tests if the bill became law, Moore feared the district would need to cram the same amount of tests in before Legg's window.
"The scheduling of this will be a nightmare," she says.
Amelia Larson, a Pasco assistant superintendent, bristles at the idea that districts are responsible for any over-testing a student might experience.
Pasco began its quarterly "Discovery Ed" benchmark exams after legislation from last year's session required districts to more closely tie each student's growth to his or her individual teacher.
"I have to evaluate kindergarten students and tie that test to the performance of the teacher. That has created a push for more tests. Those are the root causes of the issue," Larson says. It's what the tests are used for that concerns students, she says. Rather than a "Christmas tree" mentality of apathy, they show anxiety.
In its initial "pilot" year, Discovery Ed may be scaled back to two assessments.
"Good teachers already know who lags behind and what they need," said Otteni, the Westgate teacher. "Working with children all day, you see it firsthand. You don't need a test to tell you."
Lisa Gartner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.