The anti-testing debate has been gaining steam over the past several years, and finally came to a head last summer with the national anti-testing resolution that hundreds of school districts, organizations, and individuals across the nation signed on to.
The frustration that teachers, parents, and others complain about is completely understandable:
• For most school districts in Florida, there are simply too many tests throughout the year. These tests take up valuable instructional time, disrupt the flow of instruction, and create scheduling nightmares (especially when there aren’t enough computers for computer-based tests).
• Often, teachers are not provided feedback in a timely manner (or in a way that they can understand and use) and sometimes not at all.
• Many teachers (whether by their own choice or at the direction of a coach, administrator, or district leader) stop teaching the regular curriculum to focus on test preparation.
These are completely true and valid arguments. In fact, I’m not sure how many people would disagree with the above statements. I think really it comes down to two questions here.
1. Are standardized assessments, whether statewide or local, an important and necessary tool for instruction?
2. If the answer to the above question is “yes”, then what do we do to fix our current problem, which is that our students take too many tests?
I think the answer to Question #1 is obvious, but let’s discuss it anyway. The words “standardized” and “high-stakes” make many educators cringe, but the truth is teachers love tests. Or rather, teachers love assessments (don’t lie, we all do!). While there may be hundreds of fun and creative ways to assess students on any particular concept, most of these are not efficient or effective for testing students on a mass scale. Florida has standardized tests for a reason—they are objective, they are tied directly to the standards teachers teach (hence, standardized), and they can be given in a (relatively) time-efficient manner. Most importantly, they provide meaningful data about our students which can then be used to evaluate all levels of our education system.
So the real problem then is not that standardized tests are bad, but that Florida schools (as a whole) focus too heavily on them…fair point. Which leads us to Question #2.
Anti-testing advocates in Florida typically lump all standardized tests into one category: mandated statewide tests. If you look at the state testing schedule here, you will see which tests are required for Florida students. The number of tests varies by grade level, subject, performance, language acquisition, and more.
While the list may seem quite lengthy, there are very few tests an individual student is required to take in any given year. Here is where it gets tricky. There are some tests which are required by the state to be administered to a specific sub-population of students, but may be given to a much larger population of students at the district’s discretion. The Florida Assessment for Instruction in Reading (FAIR) is a perfect example of this.
How many of you, Florida teachers, have been told by a principal or coach that FAIR is a required test by the state for all students? Technically, FAIR is not required at all (except for certain low-performing schools). However, law requires all students with a reading deficiency (K-3 district assessments determine if a student has a reading deficit, grades 4-10 is determined by scoring Level 1 or 2 on FCAT) be progress monitored with whatever assessment tool districts choose to use. FAIR is an optional tool that may be used for these students . Yet, many schools use FAIR to test every child because…well….I’m not really sure why! It’s easier than just figuring out which ones qualify??
Recently, I taught at a school that did just this—tested every student in every grade level for which FAIR assesses. Not only that, but the intensive reading classes (containing all FCAT Level 1 and 2 students) were directed to take the assessment first. The English Language Arts classes (which are mixed levels) were given the assessment second. FAIR is a computer-based test, so I was asked to take my entire ELA class to the computer lab for two straight days, three times per year, only to have about 70% of my students do nothing because they had already taken the assessment in their reading class (and the 30% of students who did take FAIR during those two days were the higher-performing students who weren’t required to take it anyway). And to make the story even better, I did not receive the results of the assessment until months later, just a few weeks before we got to do it again!
Oh, sidenote, I never received my students’ FCAT Reading scores from the previous year. NEVER.
So yeah, I get it!
Then why are we blaming all of this frustration on the big bad state of Florida? Because we have all been told that it’s the state’s/Legislature’s/DOE’s fault. It’s simply wrong.
Just a few days ago, News Channel Five in West Palm Beach reported that the school district of Palm Beach County, in a last minute decision, is requiring all middle grades students enrolled in high school math courses to take the FCAT Math test….even though they are no longer required to. According to the article, the principals thought this was “in the best interest of students.”
The frustration here is not just that the students have to sit through an unnecessary test, but that they now have to prepare for a seventh or eighth grade math exam when they are studying Algebra I or Geometry! In this case, the teachers truly are being asked to “teach to the test” because the course standards are not aligned to the assessment their students are being asked to take!
There may very well be too much testing in Florida. But before we point fingers at Tallahassee, let’s ask our local leaders to own up to the tests they have imposed on our students and teachers.