They used to be called "finals." Now, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers is calling them standardized end-of-course exams. By whatever name, such tests — if wisely written and smartly used — could be an intelligent replacement in high school for the often-reviled FCAT.
An end-of-course exam would measure what a student has learned in the course just completed, so it has the potential to gauge accountability in a more direct way. Did the student learn the material? Did the instructor successfully teach it?
In contrast, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is just that — a "comprehensive" test that doesn't examine what a student learned in any particular course. Worse, the monthslong lag time between taking the test and learning the results means it loses value as a diagnostic tool.
An end-of-course exam would be taken at the end of the term. It is important to design a system in which the results can be known shortly afterward, because such real-time feedback in a specific subject is a better performance measure and a better diagnostic tool for the student, the teacher and the school district.
Lawmakers should move carefully and methodically to avoid the pitfalls that beset the FCAT. For example, starting with Algebra I as a replacement for the ninth-grade FCAT math exam makes sense because the sweep of such a course can readily be agreed on.
There also should be reasonable provisions for students who do not test well to be able to prove their competence in the subject in alternative ways. And while it is important that the test be standardized enough that a passing grade in Pasco means the same thing as a passing one in Pinellas, it is also important to still give districts — and individual teachers — enough flexibility to fine-tune their own approaches to teaching the material. It doesn't particularly matter how the students learn the material. It matters that they learn it.
A carefully considered move to end-of-course high school exams could lead to the kind of accountability that doesn't point fingers but rather points the way to success.