Florida school district officials are writing thousands of new exams to administer to students this school year. The effort to create end-of-course tests in subjects not evaluated at the state level, is causing more parents, and local education officials to call for a time out on testing.
Tallahassee mom Elizabeth Overholt is fed up.
“It’s a complete mess to start with," she says about the current state of Florida's school accountability system.
Overholt is part of a growing movement of parents across the state pushing back against standardized testing. She heads the facebook group Opt Out Leon County, and is part of the district’s advisory board. This year, she’s trying to opt her three children out of all exams administered or mandated by the state. That includes the new Florida Assessment Test which has replaced the FCAT. Overholt also doesn’t want her kids taking the end-of-course exams districts now have to administer in all grades and in all subjects. One of her high-school-aged daughters will end up being tested twice in one class as a result of the exam mandates:
“Why? Why test her twice on the same information? That doesn’t benefit her, and it doesn’t inform instruction. If a test informs instruction, I’m okay with it. But an end-of-course exam is not going to inform instruction for my daughter," Overholt says.
That could be happening because the Advanced Placement scores won’t be back until the fall and the district would still need a way to measure how well a teacher performed. The AP U.S. history class comes with an exam that can be taken to earn college credit, but history is also one of classes the state has created a standardized test for. But there are subjects not tested by the state that districts have to come up with, as mandated by a 2011 teacher merit pay law, which bases part of teacher evaluations on student learning data. The push for more exams has led districts to start creating thousands of new, additional tests that are going into effect this school year. And in Leon County the number of new end-of-course exams is between 1200 and 1300.
“Think about all the variations of P.E. There are. So physical education has advanced aerobics, intermediate aerobics, advanced, intermediate weightlifting," says Leon County testing director Gillian Gregory. "those two courses require six assessments because each one of those courses has its own course code identification with its own standards and expectations.”
According to media reports, Palm Beach County is facing 400 new tests. Broward County is looking at 800 new end-of-course exams. And in an interview with PBS, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho put the number of end-of-course exams at 1200. However, that does not mean every student will take every exam. At the most recent state board of education meeting, Hillsboro County Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia, a fixture at such hearings—voiced her concerns about what districts are facing this year.
“Districts are having to fully implement Florida State Standards across all grades and subjects, administer the Florida Standards Assessment. Implement local assessments and exams to measure student performance in all grades and subjects not covered by state exams," she said.
Her list of complaints also includes a new grading system, new salary schedules for teachers, a push for more technology in the classroom and a lack of capacity to administer all the new exams on computer. There are also increasing requests by parents to opt their kids out of state testing, and confusion as how to respond to those requests. But not everyone believes the situation is that dire. While state law has mandated end-of-course assessments in every class a student takes, the Florida Department of Education says it’s not that different from what schools are already doing given many teachers already administer final exams. In a statement, the department says districts don’t have to make up brand new exams. Teachers and principals are allowed to choose their own.
End-of-Course assessments can also take many forms. They could be portfolios of a students work in a class like art. A fitness test for physical education or if it’s a music class, it could be playing scales. Industry Certifications can serve as end-of-course exams in those areas as well.
But, as the Leon School District’s Gregory points out---the option that lets teachers choose and principals approve assessments, could create a perverse incentive. For example, there’s nothing in state law that says a test can’t be open book.
“For that reason, districts are very concerned because the state has essentially shifted to the district level the responsibility for this test development, and then ultimately the district becomes the face of any problems with that assessment.”
Still, the idea of so many new tests and rules is daunting to both education officials and parents. And Tallahassee mom Elizabeth Overholt says, she’s over it:
“Opt your kid out. Let’s stop this crazy testing scheme," she says.
Recently, the Lee County School Board opted out, then opted back in to the state’s accountability system. An Alachua county teacher grabbed headlines for refusing to administer a kindergarten test. Florida law is vague about what happens if students don’t take the end-of-course exams at the district level, but refusing to take state-mandated tests is another issue. The state’s third grade reading exam, Algebra I end of course test, and English/Language arts Florida Assessment Exam are mandatory for graduation. If students don’t take, or can’t earn a passing score on the test, a high enough college entry exam score could substitute.