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Seeking clarity in Florida Standards Assessments school testing debate

Published Feb. 9, 2015

In the waning days of January, parents at some Florida schools got the word: Their children would sit for a trial run of the state's new writing test in early February, just weeks before taking the official exam.

While many thought nothing of it, parents already wary of Florida's changing testing system took the news as another indicator of school accountability run amok.

One alarmed parent sent an email to lawmakers, referring to the new Florida Standards Assessments.

"FSA field-testing as late as February????!!!! How CAN this exam be ready to be administered?" she demanded.

Parents circulated the question through social media chat groups. Lacking an answer, it gained credibility within Florida's nationally watched fight over standardized testing.

Florida, the story went, had yet to finish writing the exams students would soon take. Just one problem: It wasn't true.

After the Lee County School Board voted in August to opt out of state assessments, Florida's testing debate has become emotional, with trust at times in short supply and facts often twisted.

To bring more clarity to the discussion, here are some facts about some of the more hotly debated topics:

Field testing

The state's writing field test is perhaps the most immediate issue. Begun in December, it continues through Friday.

Not every school is selected for the test, which is used to determine the viability of questions. But a letter by a Leon County principal alerting parents to the test quickly got passed among Facebook groups focused on testing.

It fed the oft-repeated concern that Florida is not ready for its spring testing season. The questions, it seemed, were being sampled for validity far too late in the game.

Parents heaped more criticism on the system. But testing experts, who knew better, were doubtful.

"I don't think it would be possible (or desirable) to field-test writing prompts, then operationally use the prompts just a few weeks later," University of North Carolina professor Greg Cizek said in an email interview.

Scott Norton of the Council of Chief State School Officers wondered: "Are the (questions) for this year or for future years?"

Bingo.

Students have taken such tests for years, always a year in advance, said Vince Verges, who oversees Florida's testing system. The tests that students will take this spring "have been done and put away some time ago," he said.

They're the ones Florida paid $5 million to be field-tested in Utah.

But even that explanation didn't satisfy everyone.

"The field testing is a pretest for the actual test, which makes them guinea pigs," said Hernando County parent Maria Schultz, who planned to find a way to have her fourth-grader opt out. "They're just wasting time."

Opting out

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote a letter to lawmakers in late January saying students cannot opt out of state-mandated testing. She has repeated the message several times since then.

Each time she says it, some parents claim she's wrong.

Schools have to give the tests, they contend, but kids don't have to take them. The parents point to federal law that neither bans nor allows opting out.

They also focus on Florida statutes that offer options to students, such as portfolios of their work and alternate tests. Advocacy groups advise students to go into the testing room, open the exam and sign in, then refuse to answer questions.

The school would then code the test as "did not meet attemptedness," and no data would be reported.

The law offers something for both sides.

It states: "Participation in the assessment program is mandatory for all school districts and all students attending public schools … except as otherwise prescribed by the commissioner. If a student does not participate in the assessment program, the school district must notify the student's parent and provide the parent with information regarding the implications of such nonparticipation."

School district officials have said the state has not provided guidelines for when students refuse a test. Hillsborough County has set a protocol, though, district spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

First, a proctor would ask the student to continue. If the child declines, the proctor would take them out of the testing room to avoid causing a disruption.

The child would get one more chance to return to the test. If he refuses, a school employee would call parents to explain the stakes attached to not testing.

The student does not receive a score, and may not take a makeup exam.

"We don't discipline them," Hegarty said. "We can't force a kid to take a test."

Consequences

After the tests are taken, the state plans to use the data as a baseline for future measures, such as state grades.

Schools will receive none of the consequences usually attached to a bad school grade. Some people have taken that to mean that students also will avoid consequences.

Not so.

Low-performing third-graders will still be held back based on their FSA reading scores, and 10th-graders could have to repeat the exam if they don't do well enough — even though the state won't be setting its new passing scores until late summer.

"How will they decide to hold back or not?" asked Cindy Hamilton of the advocacy group Opt-Out Orlando.

The Department of Education has a plan, called "equipercentile linking." What does it mean?

"This means that even though achievement levels will not have been set on the new assessment, the same percentage of students will be in each achievement level as last year," state DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

An example: Last year, 19 percent of third-graders scored at Level 1 on the FCAT reading exam. So this year, on the new Florida Standards Assessment for reading, the state will place the lowest-performing third-graders in Level 1.

Tenth-grade English and all Algebra I results will be similarly linked, to let students know as soon as possible if they have met graduation requirements.

Florida has gone through this kind of transition before, most recently when it moved from the original FCAT to FCAT 2.0 in 2011.

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

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