The FCAT in Florida high schools might soon become a thing of the past.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is pressing ahead with a plan to replace the test with a series of standardized end-of-course exams.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test did its job for a while, they say. But the state needs more sophisticated testing.
"End-of-course exams are more in line with what we're measuring," said Rep. John Legg, the Republican chairman of the House Pre-K-12 Policy Committee. "It's the next level of accountability that is more reflective of the student learning."
It was Republican former Gov. Jeb Bush who made the FCAT the high-stakes test that it is, with nearly unwavering support from GOP lawmakers. But now GOP lawmakers are leading the charge to end the FCAT in high school. And Bush himself is giving it a big thumbs-up.
"It would make high school relevant all the way through the experience, not just through 10th grade," Bush said this week on a national radio program.
The idea has been gaining steam for several years. But this year it looks poised to win widespread support. Backers say legislative leaders in both chambers are on board. And Democratic lawmakers have unveiled their own versions of the idea.
"I've always felt we had to get rid of the FCAT in high school," said Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat who has filed his own exam bill.
More than policymakers, students also seem to like the proposed change.
"It would probably be better," said Jack Whidden, senior at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel. "Sometimes during FCAT, you haven't really heard something that is on the test."
Tests like the FCAT are considered comprehensive exams, and are not aligned to specific courses. End-of-course exams test what students have learned in classes they have just taken.
The proposed testing change would likely begin with math next year, followed by science and reading, with the goal of making a complete transition within four years. Students would have to pass the exams to earn course credit, and the courses would become graduation requirements. So, instead of taking a math FCAT in ninth grade, students would take an exam after completing Algebra I.
The House and Senate education committees plan to jointly roll out bills next month.
The move makes sense in the broader discussion of modernizing high school accountability, said University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn, a prominent FCAT critic.
Done properly, the implementation of end-of-course exams could mollify FCAT opponents, who have complained about the overuse of the test, he said. It would melt concerns about the 11th-grade FCAT science exam, which is not tied to any class, he continued, while also satisfying those who want to see education reform move to the next level.
"It's more evolutionary than revolutionary," Dorn said.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a group that is critical of high-stakes testing, said there is a good reason Florida and other states are headed in this direction: The basic skills and comprehensive tests many states embraced aren't working, he said.
Schaeffer said Florida's steps toward end-of-course exams could be positive, but a lot depends on how the test is used.
If Florida uses end-of-course exams in the same way it uses the FCAT — such as making them a graduation requirement — then "that's not improvement, that's just more testing," he said.
"Just because they're phasing out . . . part of the FCAT, doesn't necessarily mean the new system will be better," Schaeffer said.
That has been a concern nationally as a more states shift away from comprehensive exams.
Last year, five states — Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee and Virginia — used end-of-course exams as a graduation requirement, according to the Center on Education Policy. But another 10, including Florida, plan to use them by 2015.
Texas plans to make tests in English, science, history and math for ninth- through 11th-graders graduation requirements by 2011.
"We ended up trading one high-stakes standardized test . . . for 12 tests like that," Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Richard Kouri said.
Legg of Pasco County said he wanted to "go slow" in rolling out the changes.
That's smart, Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said.
"There always is a sense of urgency around reform," he said. "But giving this a chance to develop is going to give us a chance to make this successful for Florida."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.