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Hernando school shows FSA tests not all bad

Sydney Smoot, 9, a fourth-grader at Brooksville Elementary School, made an impassioned plea to control standardized testing at last week’s Hernando County School Board meeting.
Sydney Smoot, 9, a fourth-grader at Brooksville Elementary School, made an impassioned plea to control standardized testing at last week’s Hernando County School Board meeting.
Published Mar. 26, 2015

The orange sheet of paper taped to the door of a classroom at Westside Elementary School warned that the dreaded time of year had finally arrived.

"TESTING," it said in bold, capital letters, followed by the test's actual name in much smaller type so as not to spread too much anxiety: "Florida Standards Assessment."

One measure of how people feel about FSA was the reaction to last week's address to the Hernando County School Board from anti-testing's child crusader, 9-year-old Sydney Smoot.

The audience stood and cheered; a video link of her speech spread to Facebook pages and websites, including the Tampa Bay Times'. She and her mother, Jennifer, gave interviews to blog sites, newspapers and television and radio stations.

Let's look at her arguments, and to avoid making a lively, articulate fourth-grader the sole spokesperson for her side of a statewide debate, let's also remember that her views are shared by many other testing opponents, including her mom.

They are absolutely right that the FSA was rushed into place before it could be proven valid. Considering the lack of data available, there's no reason the state Department of Education couldn't have taken a one-year break from grading schools.

It's also absurd for the state to contend that this year's school grades don't really count. As long as teachers, students and prospective home buyers can find these grades online, sorry, but they do count.

And test scores definitely count in deciding whether children in third grade can advance to the fourth. And they should not enter into this decision. Not yet.

But are the tests "ridiculous," as Jennifer Smoot told me on Monday? No. And is there any reason for kids to opt out of any part of the testing, as Sydney did this week with her mother's permission?

No again. Based on what I saw Monday at Westside Elementary, FSA isn't the bogeyman it's been made out to be. It tests a curriculum that requires more thought from students and that will make them more competitive globally. And when enough time has passed for schools to adjust their instruction and for the state to set informed performance standards, these tests can even be fair.

If Westside principal Kristina Garofano resents the power of the FSA — and as a first-year principal who will be judged on whether she can bring up her school's D grade, nobody could blame her if she does — she hides it well.

"It's my job to remain calm," she said Monday.

The questions on the FSA aren't a complete surprise, she said.

As is widely known, Florida Standards is mostly just a new label slapped on the old, politically banged-up Common Core. And Common Core has guided instruction in lower elementary grades for several years. In fact, the third-graders sweating over test booklets in the classrooms behind the orange signs have been exposed to Common Core since their first day of kindergarten.

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Also, it's a misconception that students in this grade can be held back solely because of their performance on one test. The FSA is no different than the state's previous high-stakes test in that students who fail the reading portion have a chance to prove their reading ability in less intimidating settings. And, typically, according to a letter sent to schools from the FDOE, more than half of the lowest-performing test takers are able to do so.

To further help teachers prepare students for the new tests, DOE created a website that includes sample questions.

Old reading comprehension tests usually featured multiple choice questions. Now, as the site showed, students might receive a long list of questions about a passage and be required to name each one that is correct. The math question Garofano pointed to asked not for the correct answer of a long multi-step computation, but to identify the point at which it went wrong.

These questions are, as teachers like to say, "more challenging." And that's the way to treat this test, as a challenge. Don't complain or vilify it. Don't back down.

Give teachers what they need to prepare kids to take these tougher tests, and give the profession the respect — and pay — needed to attract the best teachers.

I think they are the key. And so does Jesse Schroeder, 12, a Westside fifth-grader who will take the test next month. He's ready because his homeroom teacher, Brittney Serrano, "is, not to brag, one of the best teachers in the whole world," he said.

"It's a big test, but I'm pretty sure we can nail it."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.


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