The Crushing, Suffocating Realities of High Stakes Tests on Florida’s Classrooms

On Friday, the Central Florida School Board Coalition released a report on conditions that currently exists in their 10 school districts as a result of high-stakes test domination. The Answer Sheet has the entire report with facts and statistics in bullet-form lists. This post will focus on the reports conclusions.

The Coalition counts 16 tests, administered to multiple grades were given this year. They say:

An enormous increase simply in the sheer quantity of testing has occurred in the State of Florida within the last decade and a half.

Moreover, the use of the results of tests has changed. For example, as of 1999, FCAT results assign school grades. In 2001, the Florida State Board of Education established the FCAT passing score as a requirement of the regular high school diploma. In 2002, AYP (as part of the NCLB law expectation of one hundred percent proficiency by 2014) was added to as part of the school score. Student performance bars have been subsequently raised to set passing scores for class. Students are required to have a passing score for class credit in Algebra 1, Geometry, and Biology, and required passing scores for college class placements. Arguably, the standards have become too high to actually meet, for example, in 2011 only 39% of 10th grade students passed the FCAT 2.0 Reading. This has also come to include mandated grade retentions, mandated additional instructional time, and mandated intensive remediation classes for students in middle and high school levels. Additionally, school grades now include FCAT Science grades, learning gains within the lowest twenty-fifth percentile, graduation rates, and accelerated coursework offerings. Within the last fifteen years, the sheer quantity of testing, the standards of passing, and the use of testing have increased well beyond their initial beginnings and limits.

I’d imagine that the coalition would agree with a statement I’ve come to repeat frequently: The culture inside our schools have changed from one of learning and accomplishment to one of testing. The coalition’s point that “the use of testing have increased well beyond their initial beginnings and limits” is lost on and ignored by  state policy makers. Current education commissioner’s Gerard Robinson has been responding to criticism that Florida’s students are tested too much with a sophomoric, “compared to what?”

Florida has a budget – concious, fiscally conservative governor in Rick Scott who cut $1 billion from education in his first year only to return it the next. Yet Scott or neither of his two republican predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, blinked an eye at the rising cost to the taxpayer of their test-based system. The three’s insensitivity to local costs – unfunded mandates all – remains palpable hypocrisy.

Florida’s state assessment and accountability program expends disproportionate fiscal and human resources on the production of tests, testing materials, distribution, scoring, dissemination of results, school grading, prep materials, and supplementary test materials to support the retake process, and communication and enforcement of stringent testing protocols. Excluding the costs related to equipment, printing, and related school staff hours of prep, testing, scoring and reporting, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt approximates the annual cost of testing at $424,000 with Pearson approximating the annual cost of their tests at $59,000,000. Given the extensive requirements surrounding state assessment, these tests and their mandates would cost schools and districts in more than just the fiscal cost of the bare test themselves

….Schools and districts must utilize personnel and financial resources to prepare, schedule, store, transport and administer state assessments. Additionally, the state requires that school districts identify and continuously utilize progress-monitoring and diagnostic assessments, purchase computers for testing, upgrade existing hardware and computer infrastructures, provide certificated test administrators and assign proctors in each testing environment. Schools and districts must purchase instructional materials to support the testing format, schedule and execute test administration training, identify available staff and facilities for test administration, reschedule classes and employee work schedules, and assign special couriers to deliver and retrieve tests. Florida’s extensive testing program and its highly-controlled testing protocols force school and district leaders to tap resources created to support students and use them to comply with state testing directives. To begin with, the State of Florida does not fund high stakes testing or it’s accompanying testing requirements. As a result, schools and districts must divert funding once used for hiring teachers, providing academic support for ESE, ESOL, and struggling students, offering summer learning programs, maintaining school facilities, training teachers, establishing competitive salaries to attract and keep good teachers, etc. in order to meet excessively strict testing requirements. In addition, schools incur a tremendous loss of instructional time, which impacts those students already performing below grade level most severely, resulting in even greater deficits for these students compared to their peers.

 Their budgets must be used for training, test security, purchase of computers, substitutes, and purchasing instructional programs designed to improve students’ FCAT scores……

On to the classrooms in the coalitions’ 10 districts.

 Furthermore, the extensive testing schedule and the large numbers of students who must be tested costs schools in disruptions to the learning environment in an effort to provide the optimum testing settings. The testing environment takes precedence over student learning, leaving students without their teachers of record to conduct lessons and without the classroom or lab that was conducive to student learning, and often requires that student to report to “holding” areas while their teachers, labs and classrooms are needed for testing

……The cost to instructional time due to substantive testing and test preparation has severely impacted student learning. For instance, in a single year, as many as sixty-two tests may be administered by the district to its students. Throughout this, students will spend at minimum nine weeks in kindergarten and up to twenty-one weeks of the school year in 10th grade testing. Students who must take multiple tests, as well as students who must take a test multiple times for a given subject (i.e. accelerated middle school students that test in their EOC and FCAT math) are losing momentum. Students are affected by testing even if they are not the ones testing. Their classrooms may be changed; their scheduled teachers may be serving as a test administrator. One principal indicated that in order to administer these tests, over forty student instructional days are disrupted in some manner

The disconnect between the realities of Florida’s classrooms and the visions and agendas of policy-makers couldn’t be greater. In the wake of the FCAT Writes disaster, Gov. Rick Scott said “our students must know how to read and write, and our education system must be able to measure and benchmark their progress so we can set clear education goals.” Scott’s lack on concern for the validity of the tests is chilling. His hand-picked education commissioner, Robinson has been pleading with the media to stop calling them “high-stakes tests.”

Scott and Robinson are demonstrating the considerable rigidity of their positions. They clearly cannot imagine a world without tests.  Such a testing fetish further unmasks their philosophy that education policy has to be top-down. To remove the influence of test data is to take away their power. Small wonder the two took the incredible step earlier this year to rank districts according to FCAT data.  Scott and Robinson no longer can be seen as being the least bit interested in what stakeholders like the Central Florida School Board Coalition observe. Like the Jeb Bush dominated Board of Education, the two are quickly losing the credibility that public servants require to establish and carry-out public policy.


About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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