Part IV: Test Mania – How Florida Lost its Focus on What Matters in Education
Florida’s students have suffered from the policy decisions made in Tallahassee over the past two decades.
Low wages have forced many dedicated educators to leave the profession because they simply can’t afford to do what they love to do.
To make matters worse, students suffer from policy decisions that force highly effective teachers to leave a school just weeks into the school year because of their VAM score. And too many teachers do not have the freedom to teach or to stand up for their students’ best interest because of annual contracts.
As bad as all of that is, perhaps the single greatest negative impact on Florida’s students over the past two decades is our state’s obsession with testing, which has cost billions of dollars and even more importantly sucked the joy out of teaching and learning. This combination of bad policy and low pay has resulted in more than 300,000 Florida students without a certified teacher at the start of the 2019-20 school year.
In part four of our series, we examine Florida’s Test-Mania.
Testing, Testing, and More Testing
To gain a full understanding of just how much testing Florida’s students are subjected to, take a look at the 19-page assessment schedule from Osceola County. It’s easy to see that once students take their first standardized test within their first 30 days of kindergarten; they spend much of their next 13 years in public schools either taking a test or preparing to take a test.
Supporters of Florida’s accountability system would make a couple of arguments to defend the status quo, but those claims are, at best, disingenuous.
The most common refrain heard from the supporters of Florida’s testing bureaucracy is that students spend just a few hours annually taking the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).
While it is true that students spend less than 11 hours of the total school year taking the FSA, what is most important is not how much time an individual student spends taking tests. Instead, the metric should be how much instructional time is impacted due to testing.
Increasingly, standardized tests are given online, and lack of sufficient technology and infrastructure causes schools’ schedules to be upended for weeks, or months, on end in order to test every student.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel reports that Westward Elementary in West Palm Beach had to close its media center for 90 days – a full one half of the school year – in order to accommodate testing. Of course, it’s not just media centers that are impacted. All too often, vital school personnel such as counselors and speech and language pathologists are pulled from their assigned duties to help monitor and/or proctor testing.
It should be clear that the impact of testing on students extends far beyond simply calculating the amount of time they spend taking the FSA.
Tallahassee politicians also like to blame school districts for over-testing. They point out that most of the time students spend testing is for district tests, not state tests. This, too, has a kernel of truth but misses a much larger point of the district-administered tests.
The names, number and length of time to administer these tests vary by school district, but what is clear is that Florida law requires a “schoolwide system of progress monitoring for all students …” and that translates to benchmark testing and computer programs such as i-Ready, which many students around the state use in excess of an hour each week.
Instead of engaging in learning, students are forced to spend an inordinate amount taking “progress monitoring” assessments. All this testing is purported to serve a larger purpose of identifying areas where students need remediation and or enrichment, but the reality is very different.
Assessment Without Purpose
The stated purpose in law of Florida’s standardized tests is to provide data that can be “used by districts to improve instruction; by students, parents, and teachers to guide learning objectives …” The reality is far different.
Students in Florida’s public schools take their first standardized test, the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener (FLKRS), within 30 days of entering kindergarten. What educational value is there in administering a standardized test to a 5-year old? None.
This is not just our opinion. The Erickson Institute’s Research Center for Children and Social Policy had this to say about standardized test results for children ages 8 and younger:
Given that young children are undergoing significant changes in their first eight years of life in terms of brain growth, physiology, and emotional regulation, and recognizing that children come into this world with varied inheritance, experience, and opportunities for nurturance, it is not difficult to imagine that a brief snapshot of a child’s skills and abilities taken on a single occasion will be unable to capture the shifts and changes in that development. To draw long-term conclusions from such assessments seems baseless. (page 9)
It is not just the FLKRS that serves no discernable, educational purpose. That holds true for most, if not all, of the high-stakes tests that Florida’s students are subjected to. One only need to look at the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) report students receive to understand just how little educational value the test has.
Months after taking a test, students receive a report that tells them how many points they earned in vague categories such as “craft and structure” and “integration of knowledge and details.” What possible benefit is it to a student, teacher or parent to know a child earned 20 out of 22 points on craft and structure? Does that score provide useful, actionable information that was previously unknown? Will a student head back to school the next year with a renewed focus and determination to master craft?
Despite Florida’s decades-long obsession with high-stakes standardized testing, the reality is little or no useful information for individual students is gleaned from these tests. Whatever purpose standardized testing serves, it is not for the educational benefit of students.
Narrowing of the Curriculum
It should be clear by now that the excessive testing and data monitoring has led to a significant loss of instructional time.
When a researcher from the University of Central Florida investigated the impact of high stakes testing on music classes, he found the following:
“[D]emands to meet FCAT standards were resulting in students being pulled from classes for remediation and music teachers being required to teach reading as opposed to music.” (p. 105)
Unfortunately, since the time this research was conducted things have only gotten worse. It’s not just that music teachers are being asked to teach reading instead of music, for far too many students there are no music classes at all. The irony of this is that there is a considerable amount of research which suggests that arts education is beneficial to overall student success. So, one of the things that we know would help students academically (as well as socially and emotionally) has been reduced or eliminated due to the pressures to get students to perform better academically. Such is the plight of students under the Florida model of accountability.
However, it is not just the arts that students are missing out on due to increased testing pressures. In recent years, both the National Science Teachers Association and the Education Commission of the States have lamented the loss of science instruction in elementary school due to the heavy emphasis of preparing for high-stakes testing in reading and math.
There is hardly a legislative session that goes by in Tallahassee without significant discussion on ensuring that a greater emphasis is placed on civics in Florida’s public schools. Civics education is something that we strongly support and tends to be one area of bipartisan support in the Legislature as well. But it must be noted that many of the champions of returning civics instruction to the classroom also supported SB 736, the largest expansion of high-stakes testing that Florida has ever seen, which has been largely responsible for the narrowing of the curriculum.
Cashing in on Kids
Beyond the very real cost of lost instructional time and narrowing of the curriculum, there are significant financial costs to Florida’s testing obsession.
Since September 2017, the Florida Department of Education has expended almost $3.5 million on the FLKRS test that all kindergarten students must take within the first 30 days of the school year.
In 2014, Florida contracted with the American Institutes of Research (AIR) for administration of the FSA. Since that time, AIR has received more than one-quarter of a billion dollars from Florida’s taxpayers and is slated to receive millions more before the contract expires.
The same time that AIR was being paid for the FSA, another corporate testing giant, NCS Pearson, had raked in almost $200 million for additional standardized tests including End of Course (EOC) exams. This is on top of the millions of dollars Pearson received from Florida’s taxpayers for the creation of PARCC, a standardized test which was never administered in Florida.
And the state-mandated progress monitoring tests that districts use cost money as well. Duval County alone received an almost $1 million quote from Curriculum Associates, the parent company of i-Ready, for its progress-monitoring tests. In fact, monetizing progress-monitoring assessments has made Curriculum Associates one of the fastest growing companies in Massachusetts. Their revenues have quintupled since 2012.
It remains unclear how students have benefitted from these assessments, but the standardized testing industry has reaped tremendous financial benefits. Florida’s students deserve better. They deserve a system of education that recognizes students are much more than datapoints, and they deserve a system that returns autonomy to professional educators instead of trying to implement one-size-fits-all solutions from Tallahassee.
A Better Way
We are not opposed to assessment. In fact, as educators we believe that teacher-driven, student-centered assessment is a vital part of every student’s educational journey. Each assessment must serve a specific purpose, and the purpose should never be to simply fulfill a state mandate or to enrich Pearson or AIR.
In addition to removing the high stakes associated with standardized testing, there are four specific steps the Legislature should take to return assessment to its intended purpose.
- Fewer tests
- Current federal law requires states to implement statewide assessments in math and English Language Arts annually in grades 3-8 and once in grades 9-12. Florida should have no mandated testing beyond the federal requirements. Teachers must be treated as professionals and trusted to monitor the progress of their students without spending millions of dollars and countless time on standardized progress-monitoring assessments.
- Feedback by standard
- Since 2015 state law has dictated, “When available, instructional personnel must be provided with information on student achievement of standards and benchmarks in order to improve instruction.” However, this information has never been provided. If the purpose of standardized testing is to measure what students have and have not mastered, test results should be able to provide that information. To do otherwise is to serve the needs of adults, not students.
- Test transparency
- State law also dictates that the Department of Education, starting in 2021, “shall publish” statewide assessments “at least once on a triennial basis.” While certainly an improvement over the current absolute lack of transparency, it’s still a far cry from being sufficient considering the impact of the outcomes. High-stakes decisions are made based on these tests including student retention and graduation decisions and employment decisions for educators. Those who suffer the repercussions of these high stakes should not have to wait until 2021 to see the tests. Furthermore, the tests should be released on an annual basis, not a triennial basis.
- Return test-making to state universities
- Florida’s state tests have not always been made by for-profit multinational corporations like Pearson and AIR. A timeline of standardized testing on the Department of Education website serves as a reminder that many of the educators who are currently working in Florida’s schools took standardized tests that were created by professional educators and by state universities in Florida. Returning the process of creating these tests to educators and the state university system would go a long way toward ensuring that Florida actually follows the state law that states, the “primary purpose of the student assessment program is to provide student academic achievement and learning gains data to students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and school district staff.”