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Pasco plans exams to ensure learning standards

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco freshmen and sophomores should be on the lookout for another round of semester exams.

The school district's testing experts are crafting a set of standardized end-of-semester assessments in the core courses that most ninth- and 10th-graders take. They include English I and II, Algebra IA and IB, integrated science, biology and world history.

The exams are likely to be in place by December, research and evaluation director Peggy Jones said. Over the next two years, the district plans to develop similar exams for core junior- and senior-level courses.

At first, the tests will come in addition to those created by teachers, and they won't count against students who do poorly. That will give the district time to ensure that the exams assess the curriculum appropriately.

After time, though, the end-of-semester and end-of-course exams will replace the teachers' tests. Jones explained that the change should help educators make sure they're meeting the district and state standards for the subject matter, and that the classes will become more uniform regardless of which high school a student attends.

That should not take away from a teacher's ability to enhance the lessons and should not force teachers to give up their chosen instructional methods in favor of a script.

"The teachers have the right to deliver the curriculum in any way that is comfortable to them," Jones said.

Many school districts and states have begun moving toward the increased use of end-of-course exams as they attempt to refine their accountability programs. Leaders and experts have suggested that a single high school exit exam, such as the FCAT, is too blunt an instrument to gauge whether students have mastered the content of the classes required for graduation.

That in mind, several Florida lawmakers and education officials traveled last year to New York to research that state's rigorous Regents exams, a highly regarded set of tests that students must pass to graduate. The Legislature later instructed the Department of Education to begin putting together similar tests for Florida, perhaps as a supplement to the exit-level FCAT.

At the same time, many districts have looked to end-of-course exams as a way to determine whether teachers are succeeding with their students, in order to move toward what many consider a fairer way to dole out performance pay. Such bonuses also are part of the state's accountability program.

Mid-course correction

Pasco's move toward such testing, though, had more to do with a desire to help teachers make sure they're giving students what they need. At superintendent Heather Fiorentino's recommendation, the School Board directed the administration to begin drafting the exams more than two years ago.

"Assessments are a piece of instruction," Jones said. "They help us to determine what to do next."

By administering the tests at the end of each semester, teachers will be able to see how their students are performing on each of the standards, and then to alter their instruction as needed. Pasco teachers have supported this move, and several are helping write the exams.

Lloyd Bond, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called Pasco's move "a wonderful idea."

"It's logical and it helps the students," said Bond, a testing expert who also has taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Pittsburgh. "Anything that they can do that allows for some sort of mid-course correction if students aren't 'getting it' is, I think, a wise move."

He liked that the district is starting its initiative at the freshman level and working through all four years of high school. That will give educators and students alike plenty of warnings as to whether they're succeeding or failing, and why.

"Students have got to realize that at the end of the four years there is the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads," Bond said, referring to the state's FCAT graduation requirement. "Anything they can do to alert themselves and their tutors that they are headed down the wrong path I think it a good thing."

Similar state effort

Jones acknowledged that the state's effort to create similar tests could impact the district's program. But if the state ever puts such assessments in place, she said, Pasco can simply use its tests at a different time of the year as an additional measure of student performance.

"We always look for more than one defining moment," she said. "You don't want one test to be your be-all, end-all for what you know about students."

Jones plans to review the district's progress toward creating the tests Tuesday during a School Board workshop. She intends to talk about matters such as the way that the exams will be administered electronically, how they fit into the district's strategic plan, and how they will be graded.

The district has no plans to have end-of-course exams for elementary or middle school students.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco plans exams to ensure learning standards 08/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2008 4:16pm]
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