In 1977, Florida became the first state in the U.S. to use a standardized test for high school graduation. Two decades later, the FCAT was introduced in 1998, the year before Gov. Jeb Bush was elected. Education reform based on standardized tests was at the forefront of Bush’s tenure as governor. The Florida Legislature in 1999 adopted Bush’s A-plus Plan for Education, a blueprint for school reform with accountability as its primary focus. And the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was front and center in that plan. The stakes went up — for everyone. Schools were rated A to F. The attention focused on two grades: third and 10th. Schools that earned an F would see their students be eligible for taxpayer- funded vouchers, which parents could use to send their children to private schools with public money. Schools that received an A got bonus funding; F schools were penalized, a practice that critics said rewarded schools that were already doing well and punished schools that needed more resources. None of the previous standardized tests had the strong accountability measures like the kind ushered in with the high-stakes FCAT, says Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of Escambia County schools. “It was a game-changer for education,” says Thomas. “We’re better in Florida because of it.” It’s hard to find anyone, from educators to parents to lawmakers, who questions the need to have a way to measure how well students are performing in school. But for some, the FCAT went beyond the scope of providing a blueprint of student proficiency. Critics say its high-stakes nature contributed to “teaching to the test” and preventing teachers from getting to valuable subject matter that wasn’t tested by the state assessment. A good thing about the FCAT is that it gave teachers, schools and districts a sense of commonality and accountability, said Anne Copenhaver, who has math, reading and gifted students at various schools in Escambia County. She is in her fourth year helping first-year teachers in the Successful Teachers Assisting Rising Teachers (START) program. “If I am teaching something in Pensacola, sixth-graders in Jacksonville are teaching the same thing,” Copenhaver said. However, the FCAT’s negative impact labeled students and made them feel inferior, Copenhaver said. “Then, we started saying, ‘This is a 1, and this is a 2,’ labeling students,” she said. “My students used to say you had to make at least a 3 or you’re going to be in a ‘bump’ class. I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ They said it one of those stupid classes.” Now the FCAT has been replaced. The Florida Standards Assessment is the new blueprint, the state-sanctioned standardized test that will be used to measure student progress, gauge teacher effectiveness and rate public schools.
A group of Florida school superintendents, including Santa Rosa’s Tim Wyrosdick and Escambia’s Malcolm Thomas, presented five recommendations to state officials to address concerns about the Florida Standards Assessment:
- Support the administration of the Florida Standards Assessments this year and use the results as a baseline for measuring progress. The state’s accountability system relies on both learning gains as well as performance. In the first year of FSA administration, there will be no learning gains and therefore will compromise its ability to drive accountability.
- Freeze school grades through 2015-2016 to ensure two consecutive years of reliable and valid data.
- Eliminate the requirement for the 11th-grade English and Language Arts Florida Standards Assessment and all new End-of-Course exams.
- Allow for the determination of teacher evaluations based on local data.
- Ensure adequate technology readiness for the statewide computer-based testing.
FCAT era ends
For 16 years, the FCAT gauged general knowledge and understanding for Florida’s students. The test weighed heavily on school funding, class placement, third-grade promotion, high-school graduation, teacher pay and evaluations — and whether a public school would stay open. As the test expanded, Florida became a national leader in the reform movement that used student standardized test scores to grade individual public schools, students and eventually teachers. Assailed by complaints about its content, effectiveness and high stakes, the FCAT’s support began to wane in 2010 when the Florida Legislature adopted the Common Core State Standards, selected to replace the state standards tested by FCAT. Santa Rosa schools superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said he viewed the FCAT initially as a “systemic manner” to raise expectations for students. “The FCAT, in the beginning, was certainly a tool that increased accountability, increased expectations and, I believe, increased performance,” Wyrosdick said. “Looking at it today, it is nothing like it was 16 years ago.” As new standards were adopted, the test changed, making it nearly impossible to accurately measure year-to-year progress and proficiency. Thomas said state officials initially were careful about the reliability and the validity of the FCAT. But almost every year, new and more demanding educational standards were added to the test. “I think we have gotten careless in our haste to move this thing forward,” he said. “We’ve violated some of the rules.” This year students will take the Florida Standards Assessment, which is supposed to match the state’s Common Core standards. But there are concerns about the FSA. Thomas and Wyrosdick were among a group of superintendents who met with Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart recently to discuss those issues. Among their concerns: The test is now computer based — no more No. 2 pencils and bubble forms. But some districts worry that they have the technological infrastructure to support having every third- to 10th-grader online at the same time taking the test. If there is a glitch, there is a window of only a few days to resolve it and there is no real backup plan if it can’t be fixed, Wyrosdick said. “This year we are giving the Florida Standards Assessment starting in April, and we’ve never seen the test,” Wyrosdick said. “To me that is an unfair bias in education. What’s going to happen? I don’t know.” Another big issue for superintendents: The FSA has never been field-tested in schools. “We would have never thought about doing that in 1999,” Thomas said. “Because the train of thought was that we’re going to get it right.” Janet Pennewell has spent 35 years teaching in Escambia County schools. For the past four years, Pennewell has been away from the classroom working with new teachers in the district’s START program. Pennewell believes that assessment should drive instruction. Instead it is used as a scarlet letter, highlighting failure rather than creating excellence. “We use it to label students, teachers, schools and districts,” Pennewell said. “We say, ‘That’s a C district, so you don’t want your kid to go there.” Testing standards aren’t just important for students. The results now determine whether teachers kept their jobs; 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the school’s reading score. “I’m completely against using one assessment to evaluate the value of a teacher,” Wyrosdick said. “It’s an insult to me as an educator, as a principal, as an assistant principal who might have spent years with some of them, learning about their nuances and then judging them.”
How students coped under FCAT
Karen Corcoran started teaching in Escambia County schools in 1995. With a daughter in middle school at the time, Corcoran saw the impact of FCAT from both sides of the table. Corcoran sees the benefits of using data, but she believes the FCAT stretched the limits. “I don’t think that data is our answer to what composes a student,” said Corcoran, who teaches honors and AP history at Escambia High School. “When we place all our weight on statistical data, it’s damaging to a lot of students.” Corcoran’s concerns echo complaints that have dogged the FCAT — and all standardized testing — for years. Critics say it makes schools put too much emphasis on the test and not enough emphasis on teaching students how to make it in the real world. Tate High School junior Patrick Smith has taken the FCAT every year since the third grade. He passed it to graduate on time next year, but he heard horror stories from classmates who stressed over the test. He believes it is unfair to base high school graduation on a single test and found little value in the FCAT helping him learn. “The FCAT hasn’t prepared me for much,” says Smith. “We go to through school the whole year to take a test that we know nothing about.” Another complaint is that changes to the test have made it impossible to make reasonable comparisons from year to year. The test of 2013 is nothing like the test from 1999; the 2013 version includes more subjects and higher standards for what is considered passing. In one testing cycle, the state changed more than two dozen things about how the test would be scored. “Everyone of these layers that you add to the process, you really change the validity and reliability of the assessment measures you’re getting,” Escambia Superintendent Thomas said. “But we keep marching on like it’s going to mean the same thing as last year to compare. That’s why teachers, parents and educators are saying, ‘Whoa, time out. This isn’t about accountability.’” Niley Dixon, a Workman Middle School eighth-grader, said the high-stakes test created stress and anxiety because teachers and principals put so much pressure on them “all day, every day.” “They pressure teachers way too hard and they do the same to us,” Dixon said. “Pressuring and making things harder solves nothing, it only makes matters worse. Teachers are stressed out, and so are students.”
Moving the bar
The state’s attempts to respond to those concerns have had decidedly mixed results. In 2012, Florida updated its standards, called the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. In that revision, teachers who taught subjects not covered by the FCAT faced having half their scores come from a test in subjects they had no influence over. Then criticism rained down when only 27 percent of fourth-graders got proficient scores — down from 81 percent a year earlier — on a new FCAT writing test, and students in other grades also performed poorly. The result: Officials lowered the passing score. That same year state officials miscalculated grades that were given out to hundreds of schools and were forced to change them. [sidebar]
Often touted among the top-performing districts in the state, Santa Rosa County schools, for the most part, flourished under the A-plus accountability plan. The district overall has achieved an A rating for the past decade. Of 26 district schools, more than half — 55 percent — of them earned A’s or B’s since 2001, the year FCAT expanded to include grades three through 10. Only two schools — East Milton Elementary and Milton High — received a grade lower than a C over the same period. Schools in Escambia County haven’t fared as well. With more schools and deeper pockets of poverty, the district’s overall grade has fluctuated between B’s and C’s during the last decade. Only 17 percent — eight of 47 schools — maintained either A’s or B’s during the 13-year period ending in 2014. [/sidebar] Thomas recalled testifying in front of the state education board to voice his concerns about the constant changes in the FCAT. “I said I don’t have a problem raising the bar,” Thomas said. “But if we raised the bar so high that we start calling kids failures, and we start saying you can’t read when you really can read, that’s when I think we have pushed the limits to a place it shouldn’t be.” In 2013, teacher unions sued the state and three school boards, including Escambia County’s, over performance evaluations that grade teachers on subjects and students they didn’t teach. A federal judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit, declaring that it was unfair to rate teachers based on test scores of students they never taught, but not unconstitutional under the law. While teachers lost the ruling, it was another blow to supporters of state standardized tests. Now comes this April, when the new Florida Standards Assessment test will be used. State officials say the new test aims to measure whether students are on track for “college and career readiness.” The new assessments may quell some of the criticism as the state moves away from a one-day test of academic skills to provide a more detailed measure of student achievement. But there is growing concern that the new tests will be more challenging, leading to lower grades for schools and students. “Every time I speak to parent groups, I tell them that this is a far more difficult test and that your students won’t do as well,” Wyrosdick says. “We have to get back to sensibility, back to being realistic about what we can do to affect education.” After years of constant changes to and complaints about high-stakes testing, now the state’s top leader has come to believe that schools test students too much. Gov. Scott, speaking on Feb. 11 at a Tallahassee education conference hosted by former Gov. Bush, said schools in Florida spend too much time on testing and that the Florida Legislature should fix that this year, the Orlando Sentinel reported. While he offered no specifics for changes, Scott said that a testing investigation he asked the Florida Department of Education to conduct should provide a “template” for changes. “We have too much testing,” Scott said. “We need to spend more time on learning. We need this year to work with the legislature to get something done.”