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Florida unveils new but unfinished test to replace the FCAT

Screen grab of a sample 8th-grade math question from new FSA test, the replcament for the FCAT.
Screen grab of a sample 8th-grade math question from new FSA test, the replcament for the FCAT.
Published Jul. 1, 2014

Forget the FCAT. Think FSA instead.

Florida's 15-year-old test officially gave way Monday to the Florida Standards Assessment, with the launch of a new website that gives a first look at the state's new accountability exams.

"We wanted parents and students and teachers to see the different types of questions there might be," said Vince Verges, state assistant deputy commissioner for accountability, research and measurement.

They range from easier multiple choice problems to complicated, multistep ones for which students may earn partial credit.

"Of the questions that are challenging, students will be asked to demonstrate a higher level," Verges said. "There will be more opportunities for them to show how much they have mastered."

In fifth-grade math, for instance, rather than just asking students to solve an equation, the test might present a solution and ask them to determine if it is wrong. Then students would have to give the correct answer.

The reading test might have students read a lengthy passage and then respond to questions such as, "What does the reader learn about the narrator in the last paragraph?"

This shift, Verges said, is much more significant than what students faced in the move from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to its second iteration, which began in 2010. That's why the state has put forth its website now — to give people time to acclimate to the way the tests work, as well as the way the questions are written.

Even so, Vergas said, the state will take one year to roll out the FSA before placing high-stakes accountability expectations on it. That will provide enough time to determine the proper mix of question difficulty and make other critical decisions.

A year is about what's needed to get teachers comfortable with a new testing model, said Russell Almond, a Florida State University assistant professor of educational psychology. He used recent changes to the state writing exam as a comparison.

"The first time the (writing) test was given, the teachers had not fully understood the implications of the changes in the standards and how they are operationalized in the assessment," he said. "But once they saw their students' assessments and scores, they relatively quickly adjusted."

Teacher preparation for the tests will be key, Almond said, so they can teach the standards appropriately.

Controversy has arisen in other states that, slightly ahead of Florida, have adopted new tests and curricula based on the new Common Core standards. Some have criticized the material as too rigorous, while others say the change is necessary if U.S. students are to perform at the level of their peers in other countries.

Common Core critics in Florida have been vocal about the standards but have not spoken out on the new tests.

Verges said he believes schools will be ready for the new tests when they debut in the spring.

"The standards are much clearer than anything we had previously," he said. "Teachers can use them and build from there. The assessment will follow naturally."

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As for the sample tests, Almond said he found the computer questioning better than multiple choice, "in that they force the students to use the skills more constructively but they add computer skills into the construct."

Still, he had concerns that younger students might struggle with the system. He also said there is no way to skip questions and move on.

Verges said that was a problem only with the model that will be worked out for actual testing.

Overall, Almond said he saw things he liked and others he disliked in the new test. He said several issues will need to be worked out, from question wording to final scoring.

Jeff Miller, a Pasco County high school math teacher, said he found errors in the test answer keys that made him wonder about the trustworthiness of the exams to come.

Verges acknowledged that work remains ahead to have the FSA in working order. Teams continue to work on the questions, he said, and plans are in place to ensure the accountability measures are accurate.

"This will all be fleshed out," Verges said. "They will be ready on time."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.