Shannon's Window: What's FAIR in school testing?

  • September 18, 2014
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   education

Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be.

Back in the day kindergarten was a place to learn to work and play well with others. Letters, numbers, a little See Spot Run. That’s the way I remember Mrs. Graham’s class at Waverly School.

Kids today start out behind the curve if they wait until kindergarten to learn that stuff. Kindergarten is now what first grade was back in the day. And in Florida we have the testing mechanisms to prove it.

Until this week, when state education officials had what might referred to as a moment of clarity. It dropped one of the tests it requires teacher to give to their kindergarteners because of “technical glitches,” as it was described in a statement from the state education commissioner’s office.

FAIR — Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading — will not be given statewide for children in grade K-2. In Escambia County, the test was given to determine kindergarten readiness.

Kelly Aeppli-Campbell is an elementary English and language arts specialist in the Escambia district.

She said in the monthly statewide conference call she and her peers have with state officials, a “good bit” of the time dealt with problems associated with FAIR.

“People were saying it took 45, 50 sometimes 60 minutes to assess one child,” Aeppli-Campbell said. Teachers had been told it would be 30 minutes, she said.

FAIR is one part of a two-part test used to assess a child’s preparedness for kindergarten, and to help assess the effectiveness of the voluntary prekindergarten program that child attended.

Aeppli-Campbell said the old FAIR had two parts — letter naming and sounds. The new FAIR has six parts: alphabetics, (phonological awareness, letter sounds); oral language (vocabulary pairs and following directions); comprehension (listening comprehension and sentence comprehension).

The test itself, Aeppli-Campbell says, is “an excellent screener. If I were still in the classroom I would use it. It gives a lot of information.”

But like so many things when it comes to standardized testing, the devil turns out to be in the details.

The FAIR and its sister test (the Work Sampling System, or WSS, which is based on the teacher’s observation of the student’s skills at social interaction, motor skills and the like) must be given within the first 30 instructional days. In Escambia, children also have Discovery Education testing.

Last year, it had a pencil and paper component, so that teachers could conduct the evaluation and enter the data later into the computer system, which would then upload the data to the district and then one to the DOE.

This year the test is all electronic. Students and the teacher have to wear headphones to do the evaluation. Which means the teacher’s attention is away from the other 17 children in his or her classroom.

Aeppli-Campbell said the district was able to get substitutes in many cases to cover classes while the teacher did the assessments, but not every district could. Others had trouble handling the data demands of the all-online testing system this year.

“The technology has taken instructional time away from our teachers,” she said. “It has frustrated them beyond reason.”

Clearly. The issue gained traction through traditional and social media circles. The Washington Post on Sept. 11 published a story about kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles of Lawton Chiles Elementary School in Gainesville.

Bowles sent a letter to parent of her students — and posted to Facebook — that she was refusing to administer FAIR because it and the other tests she was require to administer hindered her ability to actually teach students.

The Post story, which cites The Gainesville Sun story about Bowles, is here.

The FAIR flap also has another consequence.

It will make year-to-year comparisons of kindergarten readiness less statistically consistent because it will be based on only one half of the data it was based on last school year.

Do we have to evaluate the academic progress of our children? Absolutely. but do we have to keep moving the bar, keep tweaking the test, keeping making decisions about is in the best interest of our children without listening to the voices of the people who we are entrusting them to for eight hours a day, five days a week?

That hardly seems fair.