Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

THE UNKNOWN IS TESTING EDUCATORS

There's already concern about how the new exams will work for students in the spring.

Humza Ghori types on the computer "a lot."

He games. He answers his teacher's online questions.

But does the Pasco County fifth-grader feel skilled enough to write timed short responses on Florida's new high-stakes test?

"I don't know," said the 10-year-old, a two-finger hunt-and-peck typist. "I think I would need more time. ... On paper I could do it so much faster."

Florida school superintendents worry that thousands of children like Humza could face the same challenge on their spring tests - being ready academically but lacking the computer skills to show what they know.

Kids have taken most state tests on computers for years now. But for the first time, many students will have to do more than move a mouse and click.

It's one of several "serious concerns" voiced by superintendents as the state replaces the FCAT and its underlying standards.

Superintendents and others insist that the complex task of launching an entire new slate of computerized tests has been rushed, and that schools and students are far from ready. They have begged for someone in Tallahassee to apply the brakes.

But state officials just as adamantly say Florida has been down this road before, and everything will be fine.

Two groups of professional educators, two drastically different views of what lies ahead as Florida pivots to a new school accountability system.

Train wreck? Or nonevent?

Less than six months before testing begins, the lack of hard answers has teachers, administrators and parents on edge.

- - -

Speaking to the Florida Board of Education on Monday, Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia brought up the often overlooked issue of students' technical abilities.

Kids might text rapidly, and ably navigate multiple tablet screens, she said. But when it comes to typing, it's hit and miss.

"There has not been sufficient time to teach students the keyboarding and computer literacy skills needed to take the new Florida Standards Assessment online," Elia said.

Ellen Willis, Humza's teacher at Sand Pine Elementaryin Wesley Chapel, sees the potential problem in her upper-middle-class school.

"We're very fortunate to have access to computers," she said. "I've got a few kids who understand where to put their fingers. ... But when we look at the standards and the FSA expectation of words-per-minute for an essay, (many students) are no way going to have the fluency for that."

Researchers find if kids can type 20 to 24 words per minute, "that is probably adequate for them to create responses," said Michael Russell, a Boston College professor specializing in computerized testing.

Fewer than that, he said, and their performance will likely suffer.

It's not just keyboarding. Students could face other computer demands, such as the lack of a spell checker and having to create math equations using drag-and-drop mouse functions.

"There's a learning curve," said Jim Wollack, director of the University of Wisconsin Testing and Evaluation Services.

Children who haven't had time to practice the methods could have scores "contaminated by the computer factor, which is not what the test was created to measure," Wollack said.

The Florida Department of Education has practice tests on its website. It plans to make more samples available next fall.

Later this month, students will be able to take training tests in the same platform they'll use when taking the real version, department spokesman Joe Follick said.

Meanwhile, many schools are adding keyboarding lessons, or at least online programs that students can use. Dunedin Elementary, where children can take home computers, plans both.

"We're going to do everything we can to give them the tools," said Kerry Apuzzo, principal of the Pinellas school.

Playing catchup for a high-stakes test doesn't put the students, their teachers or schools in the best position, she suggested.

"Knowledge-wise, we've got really smart kids," Apuzzo said. "But are we getting a true picture of their knowledge? Or will it be impeded because of their skills? ... I'm hoping they're going to be a little bit more lenient at the state level because of this."

Carla Quintana, 9, another of Willis' students, said she preferred taking the test online even though her typing needs work.

"It's more fun with technology," Carla said.

- - -

Elia also repeated another complaint by Florida superintendents: The state field-tested its new exam in Utah.

That decision calls into question the test's validity, she said, echoing her colleagues' concerns.

The state "must demand that all statistical requirements ... be performed in Florida with Florida's students - not in nondemographically representative states with homogeneous populations dissimilar from our own," Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho wrote in September.

Florida's school population is about 42 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic and 23 percent black. Utah's is 77 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.

Valid concern? It's not a simple "yes" or "no."

Establishing the passing levels for a new test should occur in-state, several testing experts said. And Florida plans to do just that next summer after the tests debut in the spring.

But another task - determining whether test questions properly measure children's knowledge - need not take place in Florida.

"Theoretically, with a big capital T, it shouldn't make a difference," said Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for Assessment.

There are caveats, though. The students should be learning the same standards, from teachers who have had similar time to incorporate them.

Utah and Florida use the Common Core standards with minor adjustments. Both began implementing them in 2011.

Florida is using the field testing in Utah to determine "the suitability of the (test questions) rather than as a gauge of student performance," education department spokesman Follick said.

Given those circumstances, the questions, "in principle," don't need to be field-tested in Florida," Wollack said.

You don't need to field test questions at home as long as kids in the other state have "been exposed to the same content the test is measuring," said Steve Dunbar, director of Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa.

The demographic concerns don't simply disappear, though.

Marion, from the Center for Assessment, said differences in each state's ethnic makeup could give rise to questions about the appropriateness of the test.

Greg Cizek, a University of North Carolina professor of Educational Measurement, sounded a stronger note of caution.

Field testing plays an important role in ensuring questions are accessible and appropriate in terms of difficulty, he said. That requires detailed study.

"Field-testing questions in another state, especially one where the content standards are different ... would be likely to give inaccurate and potentially misleading results," he said.

There are other, more basic, reasons to conduct trial runs in your own state, experts said.

It gives the state some practice in administering a new test, and students get a flavor for the questions before they count for real.

- - -

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart said she would look into how the state can help during the transition.

But her clear message was that testing will go on as planned. Deal with it.

In Ellen Willis' class, the teacher and students have hope.

"Unfortunately, I don't know what the test is going to be like," Willis said. "So I'm just kind of hoping and praying everything we are doing that is different helps them."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement