The Folly of Using Standards to Create High-Stakes Tests on Display in Florida

Northwest Florida Daily News reporter Katie Temmen isn’t letting go of a story on the  standardized test disaster that occurred in Okaloosa county.

Brad Berryman has always liked science.

He enjoyed chemistry class and thought he’d be well-prepared by the time his end-of-course exam rolled around.

He was wrong.

“When I walked into the classroom, my heart kind sank when I saw my teacher and how upset she really was,” the Niceville High School student said.

Then he got the test.

“Virtually every question on that test had nothing to do with chemistry,” said Brad, who will be a junior next year. “I bet you they had four (chemistry) questions, tops.”

He said one question involved a Chinese zodiac sign and another asked students to decide why a store might choose to purchase tomatoes with thick skin rather than thin. The question came with a graphic, but the black and white test made it difficult to discern much from it, he said.

“Honestly, it seemed to me the person who wrote the test had no knowledge of chemistry, almost,” he said.

His experience is only one of many being described across Okaloosa County this month as students, parents and teachers struggle to understand what happened on new county end-of-course exams.

After seeing significantly lower scores than previous years, school district officials opted to adjust scores on 32 of the more than 40 exams administered to seventh through 12th graders

The Earth Science test I gave my high school juniors and seniors was among those 32 and my reaction was similar Brad Berryman’s teacher. During the week of administering the test to seniors, it quickly became apparent district-wide that there was a huge problem with the tests. By the end of the second day of testing,  principals were asking for test results. Directions to make a preliminary adjustment were given by the end of the week to seniors grades and a final adjustment would be made at the end. In a June 8 article, Temmen explained how we got here:

The series of events that led the school district here began about five years ago, when districts were alerted that national standardized tests were on the way, (Superintendent Alexis) Tibbetts said.

At the time, she put out a request to all teachers to help develop county-wide EOC exams for middle and high school classes that were used through the previous school year.

About May 2011, Tibbetts said she proposed revisiting the exams. The decision was prompted, at least in part, by a number of teachers saying the tests didn’t cover all the necessary content and that they gave the teachers who created them an edge.

Initially, Tibbetts asked for small groups of teachers to gather to re-evaluate them. But she had to change the plan after getting some push-back from the Okaloosa County Education Association, she said.

At that time, the Florida Department of Education recommended the district reach out to BEACON Learning Center, a professional development organization tied to the Bay County School District that specializes in aligning districts to state benchmarks and standards.

BEACON employs professionals who are well-qualified to work with the tests and determine their reliability and validity, said Steve McLaughlin, who oversees Language Arts and Social Studies curriculum in the district.

In the end, the district sent more than 40 exams to BEACON and asked it to critique some and edit others, McLaughlin said

Tibbetts said BEACON was given three primary instructions: ensure that exams cover all the state standards and benchmarks for the course; keep as many of the original test questions written by teachers as possible; and establish questions of varying complexity.

When the tests were returned, 50 to 80 percent of them contained the questions written by teachers, although they might have been edited to make them more complex.

Tibbetts said she recognized they could have done some parts of the process differently, but ultimately stood by the actions taken.

An experienced and thoughtful educator, Tibbetts acted quickly and decisively in the interest of the district’s students in scaling the scores in the end.  The spirit and policies of which Okaloosa’s end-of-course exams were created were neither her’s nor the districts. The Okaloosa saga demonstrates the folly of using education standards to create tests. Young Berrymore was justifiably incredulous when he was asked about Chinese zodiac signs and tomato skins on a chemistry test. I felt the same way when my Earth Science students were asked a question about a dietary supplement claim.

Allowing outside companies to create tests based on standards is an irresponsible elimination of a critical middle man – teachers. Test questions are being created with dare and not care. Consider these high school Earth Science Benchmarks:

Analyze the movement of matter and energy through the different biogeochemical cycles, including water and carbon

Identify patterns in the organization and distribution of matter in the universe and the forces that determine them.

It is wide-ranging generalizations as these which Beacon created test questions with. Small wonder a detached test generator in another location created a Biology question on a Chemistry test. But rigid devotion connecting benchmarks and standards to the creation of multiple choice questions is currently the epicenter of the nation’s education apparatus.

How bad is it? Some standards-based education devotees are dismissing teacher’s concerns over this clear disconnect with a simplistic, “if you’re teaching the standards, the kids will be prepared for the tests.” A Bay county school board member said yesterday that “teachers need to pull apart those standards” and they may have to “take measures such as not using the book and finding other resources.”

Temmen reports that Beacon will not return her calls. Nor is it clear why the Florida DOE recommended Beacon to Tibbetts in the first place. Further inquiry of Beacon and the FDOE is in order. But for policy-makers to continue along the current path and not see the disconnect between standards based education and high-stakes testing for  multiple accountabilities is to advocate more for the tests than for students.



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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