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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Florida's children are about to take even more tests

From the Orlando Sentinel, by Leslie Postal

The FCAT, long Florida's most important and sometimes most reviled exam, is headed for a retirement of sorts.

But when the state shuts the door on the math, reading and writing sections of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, it will usher in a new set of tougher standardized exams in those same subjects.

So Florida's public school students still will be taking tests. In fact, they'll be taking more exams — and asked to do more on them, with writing and "show your work" math problems part of the mix in all grades 3 to 11.

Florida plans to begin pilot testing the new exams this school year, even as it weathers continued criticism that it tests students too much. The new tests are to replace corresponding FCAT exams in the spring of 2015.

They are meant to be better, more-comprehensive assessments. In both language arts and math, students are to take a series of exams with the scores combined into one final mark for each subject.

In language arts, for example, sixth graders will have three writing tasks — literary analysis, narrative writing and research simulation exercises — as well as an end-of-the-year reading comprehension exam.

The tests are to encourage a "close reading" of texts rather than "racing through the passages," and a focus on "words that matter most" rather than "obscure vocabulary," according to examples released on Monday.

They are also to provide students good-quality texts to read. One middle school example used the award-winning novel Julie of the Wolves.

The math tests aim to have a strong focus on important topics "instead of randomly sampling a mile-wide array of topics."

Both exams will include some paper and pencil work but lots of computer-based items, with students clicking, "dragging and dropping" and shading text, among other options.

"They are designed to be work worth doing rather than a distraction from good work," said Laura Slover, senior vice president of Achieve, the management partner for the new exams, in a statement.

The introduction of the new tests will come at a time when the state is facing increasing criticism about what some call its "testing mania." Some complain the state relies too heavily on scores from one-day FCAT exams to make key education decisions, from student promotion to teacher evaluations.

The criticism reached a high point this spring after the state ratcheted up scoring standards for FCAT and the FCAT-based grading formula for schools.

State leaders pushed for those changes, they said, to get Florida ready for what's coming in three years.

The new exams may answer some of the criticism as they move away from a one-day snapshot of academic skills and aim to provide a more complete picture of student achievement. But with more exams, they may heighten the criticism that testing eats up too much of the school year.

The tests are tied to "Common Core," new, national academic standards that Florida and most other states have adopted. They aim to judge whether students are on track for "college and career readiness."

Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said the Common Core standards "gets us in the right direction."

But he said most of the teachers union's criticism of FCAT is not about the test but about "how the test is used." Those complaints likely would remain, if the new tests continue to be used to make high-stakes decisions.

The new tests are being created by Florida and 22 other states in a cooperative arrangement they call Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known by its acronym PARCC.

For Florida students, the most obvious change will be more language arts and the math exams, some given in late winter and some given very close to the school year's end, said Vince Verges, Florida's PARCC director.

Students in all grades are to write more than they do on FCAT, as they are to be asked to read texts and then write responses. Currently only students in grades 4, 8 and 10 take FCAT writing, an essay-writing exam. Students will also be asked to write on the math exams, explaining how they reached their answers.

"We hope it's a bit more authentic and in keeping with the college and career ready expectations," Verges said.

For high school students, PARCC end-of-course math exams in algebra 1 and geometry will replace the state's end-of-course exams in those subjects. PARCC also will include an end-of-course exam in algebra 2. or 407-420-5273.

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