1. Opinion

Editorial: Hazards of rush on testing

Four months after Gov. Rick Scott promised on the campaign trail to take a look at the proliferation of standardized tests in Florida schools, the Department of Education finally announced plans this week to do so, saying it would seek details from the state's 67 school districts. That's a fine start, but the question about standardized testing extend beyond their frequency. Fifteen years after Florida's school accountability system started, there remain sincere concerns about how tests are administered, whether third-party testing companies get the answers right, or if the tests are even suited for the purposes they're proposed. Tests can be great tools, but only if they are implemented thoughtfully and are fair.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart released a statement Monday that her department would conduct an examination of standardized testing in public schools and will analyze the data and produce "information about the number of standardized tests and how each of the test results are used by the state, school boards and teachers." Left unsaid was whether the state would examine its own requirements for standardized testing or its ill-advised rush to implement new tests aligned to the Florida Standards, the Florida-based version of Common Core.

The state — despite a long history of flawed administration of the FCAT — has continued to fail to heed the growing and unified concern from school boards, superintendents and teachers about the quality of the anticipated assessments. The state bought the tests earlier this year after abruptly resigning from a multi-state consortium. The assessments have only been field tested in Utah, a state with distinctly different demographics from Florida. And so far lawmakers are refusing to budge on expanding the one-year hiatus on punitive measures tied to students' test performance, such as holding back third-graders who don't pass or impacting a teachers' evaluations.

It all has a fly-by-night feel. Consider just this month — three months before the tests are expected to begin — the state released details on what kind of calculators students will be able to use on math assessments. And those parameters are quite different from the calculators some districts, such as Pasco County, have purchased to use in classrooms. Pasco's machines, for example, allow a student to see a problem and the answer simultaneously; the state's specifications will not.

All that uncertainty increases the likelihood that students may make mistakes not because they don't understand the information they are being tested on but because they are using unfamiliar equipment. It's probably part of what prompted Pasco's school board to become the most recent in Tampa Bay to formally protest the state's implementation schedule and beg for more time between when the tests are implemented and when the results begin having real consequences.

Pasco is asking for the state to take a two-year hiatus on assigning consequences to the Florida Standards assessment; others have argued for three. But all the criticism underscores that just taking an inventory of standardized testing isn't enough. The Department of Education, and ultimately the Legislature, need to accept a more thoughtful transition to new standards and the tests that will measure them. Florida needs to slow down and get this right.