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They studied, they took the test, and the state said never mind

TAMPA — Spencer Coleman felt confident after taking Florida's geometry end-of-course exam this spring.

The test would count for 30 percent of his semester mark, and he was sure he did well enough to boost his "average" course grade.

Imagine his dismay, then, after learning Thursday that despite a year spent working to pass this test, his score would be thrown out.

Why? Nagging concerns that the tests might not be valid.

Lawmakers this spring mandated an independent validity review of end-of-course exams in math after problems plagued the state's newest computerized tests. But the review will not be ready in time for report cards, so the state decided last week not to count the exams as part of the grades.

About 500,000 students were affected, creating another problem: In trying to ease concerns over the system's credibility, the state only heightened them among the young test-takers and the adult educators who helped prepare them.

"What's the point of the class if you're not going to take a test to show how you can do?" asked Spencer, 15, a freshman at Freedom High School.

"I don't want to do average," he said moments after hearing the bad news. "I want to do more than average."

To meet his own expectations, he said he will spend two weeks studying for an alternate test the Hillsborough school district is offering to help students improve their grades. As he reviews for that unanticipated exam, he will also have to keep up with his class as it begins laying the groundwork for next year's Algebra II course.

The decision to drop the tests sent school districts scrambling to devise ways to calculate grades without hurting students.

Hillsborough offered students three options, including an optional second test that would count only if they do well enough to increase their grade. Pinellas planned to count the state test results when they arrive, but only if they improve students' overall performance.

But nothing about those fixes gave students a better opinion of Florida's testing system, fraught this year with a continuing string of problems.

Grace Duppins, also a Freedom High freshman, said testing took away from the time she could have been learning. She missed two days of biology, geometry and English to sit for the exam — one of several she took during the final month of school.

She also spent time working on materials in class and at home, including after-school visits to her teacher to get questions answered.

"All year it was, 'Remember this for the EOC,' " said Grace, 14. "We missed our classes and took the test for nothing."

Classmate Ryan Rodriguez said students deserve to know how they did.

"No one is happy with having our scores tossed," said Ryan, 15. "We at least want to get the results, since we did it."

Algebra I students found themselves facing a more dicey scenario.

Their test scores wouldn't count toward grades, but the test remained a graduation requirement. If they didn't pass, they would have to retake the test.

"I just don't understand. It's very disorganized," said Connor Jones, a freshman at Sunlake High in Land O'Lakes.

"If I don't pass the course and I'm already a quarter of the way through geometry, what am I going to do?" Connor, 14, wondered. "I don't want to put more stress on top of what I already have."

Jones and classmate Mikiah Peeples expressed relief that the state detached their performance on the exams from their grades. They said the exams asked them about things they had not learned in class, and that the format was sometimes confusing.

"It was difficult to use," said Mikiah, 14. "It was really hard."

Hearing that reaction to the test disturbed their teacher, Nathan Howe.

"It's not normal that some of my smartest students came back and said they thought they failed the test," Howe said.

He suggested the state had no choice but to not count the test results in students' scores, given all the problems. The exam was rife with issues from the get-go, he said, noting as an example that teachers did not know until December what types of questions might appear on it.

Howe, like many educators, argued that the results should be used as a baseline for future years. The Algebra I test shouldn't even be a graduation requirement for this year's students, he said.

"They have created such a mess that I'm sure other states are laughing at us," Howe said.

Freedom High geometry teacher Jeff Lee said he would have changed his class if he had known the test wouldn't count.

"I wouldn't have spent as much time going over how the computer test was run, the calculator they had to use, the wording," Lee said.

He noted that he gave information to students as he got it, but, like Howe, he didn't have details in a timely fashion to integrate them into regular lessons.

Time spent preparing for testing meant time away from better classroom activities, Lee added.

"I have all kinds of activities I would have done in this class that unfortunately I didn't get to do this year," he said, turning to the students and apologizing.

He added that he hoped to at least get some test data, if not the scores, so he knows where students did well and where they did poorly. That way he can improve his teaching.

Freedom assistant principal Matt Smith said he oversaw 40 days of testing, eight sessions a day, moving teachers and students in and out of classrooms, commandeering computer labs and more.

When the state changed the rules, Smith immediately saw the consequences — calls and meetings with concerned parents, confusion among some seniors wondering if they'd met all their graduation requirements.

He also worried that some students might see what happened this year and take next year's tests less seriously.

"We put a lot of effort in, teachers, administrators, students. Now at the end, after we do all this, we learn it's not going to count," Smith said. "Quite honestly, I feel like the state developed all these tests … without a lot of implementation over a timeline that is workable for schools.

"I just hope there's a reflection with our state legislators on what this year has been like for our schools, students, parents and teachers."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

They studied, they took the test, and the state said never mind 05/23/15 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2015 8:58pm]
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