After a spring of headaches and change, where does Florida stand with school testing?

Published Jun. 1, 2015

Florida's testing season has ended. The final bell of the school year is near. Yet so much about the state's new exams has changed or remains in limbo following a spring filled with testing problems and new legislation. State and local education officials are scrambling to decipher the new laws and implement them for students, parents and schools.

Here is a Q&A that recaps what has happened so far and outlines where things stand on some key, unresolved issues.

Some of the answers may surprise you.

Will Florida students be taking fewer tests from here on out?

Not really. Most of the tests that the Legislature eliminated were ones that students had not yet taken, but were about to take. Those included an 11th-grade language arts exam and several local course-specific year-end tests to be used for evaluating teachers. Lawmakers capped state and district testing at 5 percent of time in class, or about 45 hours, which is more than what most students ever sat for.

The Legislature did mandate that students who take a state end-of-course exam not be required to take a class final as well.

When will parents know how their children did?

Schools are to receive the first round of results the week of June 8. That should include scores on end-of-course exams in civics, biology and U.S. history; FCAT science in fifth and eighth grades; pass/fail information for third-grade language arts; and 10th-grade level tests in math and language arts that are required for graduation.

Other results, such as the rest of the language arts scores, are due in the fall. Typically, schools release results to parents after receiving them.

When will I learn how I did on my math test?

Results for any new tests that are not required for promotion to the next grade — including most Florida Standards Assessments and end-of-course exams in algebra and geometry — will not be released until the fall. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has said she does not want to distribute data from a test that might not be valid. An independent validity study is due Sept. 1.

In the meantime, the Department of Education has told districts not to count math end-of-course exams toward student grades despite requirements in law. Districts are handling this situation in different ways, but most have announced they will take steps to ensure that students are not hurt by the test scores.

When will school grades come out?

Many school grades usually come out over the summer, but Stewart has said she does not expect to issue them until at least December. That will give the state time to complete its validity test and then set the score ranges for each of the five levels a student might have achieved (1 being the lowest, 5 the highest). Those "cut scores" will be based on actual student performance from the spring tests.

Tell me more about this validity study.

Lawmakers ordered this review after hearing many complaints about several aspects of the new tests, from writing the questions to administering them to students. On Friday, a state committee selected a partnership of Utah-based Alpine Testing Solutions and Washington, D.C.-based edCount LLC to do the work for just under $600,000. The group was the only bidder.

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The deadline for the final report is Sept. 1. The state will not release test scores until then.

If the review finds the tests invalid, the results cannot be used for school grades or teacher evaluations.

The whole idea of having more local tests was to more precisely evaluate teachers. Now that many of those tests are going away, how will teachers be rated?

For courses without state tests, school districts now can use locally developed and approved tests or other types of assessments — such as portfolios — to evaluate student work. Student performance now counts as one-third of the evaluation rather than half, which provides more room for other factors to be considered. However, each teacher still will be graded in part on how all students in the school perform, known as the "value-added" score.

While officials continue to work out the details, many districts have agreed with their teacher unions to hold teachers harmless by giving them all "effective" ratings or better for at least one year.

What's the latest on the cyber attacks that officials said disrupted testing this spring?

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says its investigation into a March attack against the FSA testing servers is still active, and does not expect to have more details for at least a few more weeks. The Department of Education stressed that the attack did not compromise any student data, and that the actual test was not breached.

Some of the problems were caused by the state's testing vendor. Is the vendor being held accountable?

The state has not set any fines or penalties for American Institutes for Research. Newly adopted state law allows the state to seek liquidated damages from the spring testing troubles, if applicable, in addition to any payments owed through contractual obligations.

Florida is known as one of the most aggressive states in assessing fines against companies that have caused testing problems. It charged Pearson about $15 million in 2010 over late FCAT results.

Didn't legislators also change the law on school start dates?

In a bill that was mostly about testing, lawmakers changed the law relating to the first day of school, acting at the request of superintendents. The rule barring districts from beginning earlier than two weeks before Labor Day created scheduling problems with the holiday's late date in 2015.

The Florida House and Senate had different ideas, but the House version allowing school to begin as early as Aug. 10 won out. School districts may change their calendars for the fall, but local officials have said the changes came too late to alter their plans.