‘Sham’ or ‘opportunity’: What’s the state of state exams in FL and what will lawmakers do?

FairTest: ‘It’s a sham of rhetoric. There’s no reform. It will make the over testing situations in classrooms even worse’

By: - January 25, 2022 7:00 am

Testing. Photo by Getty Images

Back in September, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a push to scrap Florida’s key state exams, claiming that a change to so-called “progress monitoring” would bring “less time for testing, which will mean more time for learning.”

Legislation on the issue is now moving in the Florida Legislature.

But there’s little indication that a new state testing system in Florida would change the amount of instruction time dedicated to prepare for new assessments or reduce the roster of state exams for students moving through K-12 grades. Parents, teachers and students have been critical about the state testing regimen.

Currently, the state has a roster of statewide exams, called Florida Standards Assessments (FSA), covering reading and math in various grades, plus end-of-year exams required for graduation. (The statewide science exam is not part of FSA.)

The new testing system of progress-monitoring assessments — if approved this session — would keep tabs on how a student progresses over a period of time, and monitor the effectiveness of instruction.

There would be three exams throughout the school year, with “screening and progress monitoring administered at the beginning of the school year and the middle of the school year,” and then an “end-of-year comprehensive assessment of student progress administered in the spring of the school year.”

Robert Schaeffer is the executive director of FairTest, which promotes “fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools,” among other goals.

He doesn’t see how the proposed system equates to less testing.

“‘Less testing’ is not more testing,” Schaeffer told the Phoenix. He says that DeSantis “misled the public” when he announced the progress monitoring proposal in September.

“It’s a sham of rhetoric. There’s no reform. It will make the over testing situations in classrooms even worse,” Schaeffer said.

“Because of the required use of the interim assessments, that’s time out of the regular teaching and learning. And when you have more tests, inevitably, more time is spent practicing for them and analyzing results,” Schaeffer said. “So now you have three tests a year on math and reading. Not one.”

What the bill does and doesn’t do

The legislative analysis for Senate Bill 1048 does not clarify the claim of reduced testing time, only saying that “school districts that choose to not offer additional progress monitoring tools, in addition to the statewide coordinated progress monitoring tool, could see a reduction in testing time by not administering additional assessments.”

Most school districts in Florida have been using progress monitoring tools in the 2021-22 school year, according to the analysis.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA Officer portrait.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said that the statewide teacher union wants to make sure students are not overloaded with assessments between the state-mandated progress monitoring and any additional district level assessments.

“FSA is given once a year, and if you take the FSA that was given once a year and say ‘hey, we’re going to do progress monitoring. Now, we’re going to give an assessment three times a year. And, by the way, the districts are going to keep doing what they were doing,’ they’re actually increasing tests.” Spar told the Phoenix.

That said, Spar sees the legislation as an “opportunity” to “really fulfill that promise that was made by the governor and the commissioner (of education) to reduce the amount of testing, and the focus on testing, so that we still have an accountability system but we don’t let that drive how we do things,” he told the Phoenix.

Stephen Hegarty , with the Pasco County School District, told the Phoenix that some details on how a new state system will impact school districts and testing time won’t be known until the bill makes its way through the session by mid-March.

“Unclear at this time. We expect to know more when it is finalized.” he said in an email. “When you refer to a reduction in testing, that’s different from the time dedicated to preparing for the new progress monitoring tests. We teach to Florida’s Standards, and whether it’s FSA or progress monitoring, we’re teaching to the standards and an assessment of some sort tells us whether students are learning the material.”

Hegarty said that Pasco has not yet determined what would happen to the district-level progress monitoring currently in place if the statewide progress monitoring is successful.

Cristen Maddux, a communications staffer for the Indian River School District on the Atlantic side of Florida, also confirmed that the district uses a progress monitoring system for students in kindergarten through 8th grades, but that monitoring program doesn’t include statewide exams. So, the district is awaiting for what will happen in the Legislature.

Spar, of the FEA, says that what educators are looking for is growth, noting that a progress monitoring system can help teachers identify strategies that help struggling students do better.

“What we should be doing is looking at that progress of that child of that year. What were some of the strategies that were utilized to see that significant growth and how do we continue to see that growth going into the next year?”

The proposed legislation requires that results of the progress monitoring assessments must be available to teachers within one week of administering an assessment and available to parents within two weeks.

Spar says that having data available to teachers will be important, but worries that teachers may not be given enough planning time to adequately implement the data.

“They have to be able to give teachers time to react to it, and very often teachers do not have enough planning time so they’re not able to fully interact with the data in a way that’s meaningful that helps guide student instruction,” he said.

That said, as to the issue of growth, it’s possible students can make growth throughout the year but may not pass the final assessments.

Phasing out the FSA

On Sept 14, 2021, DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced the proposal to phase out the FSA and move towards progress monitoring, holding two press conferences that day on the topic.

DeSantis described the FSA exams as outdated.

“I think that this is something that will make a really, really big difference,” DeSantis said at one of the press conferences on Sept. 14. “I think this is something that’s very friendly to parents. I think it will be something that the teachers will appreciate because they’ll be able to make adjustments and really focus on the unique needs of each individual student.”

The proposed legislation is sponsored by State Sen. Manny Diaz, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County. The House companion bill is sponsored by Rep. Rene Plasencia, of Central Florida.

The FSA exams have stakes, such as high school graduation and grade retention.

In September, the proposal was paraded as “the end of high-stakes FSA testing”  but the legislation makes clear that all accountability currently associated with the FSA would be tied to the final cumulative progress monitoring assessment that would take place in the spring of each academic year.

“We’re appreciative that Senator Diaz has initiated several critical steps toward implementing this vision with SB 1048,” the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said in a recent email.

Pushaw reiterated that progress monitoring would “result in meaningful feedback for parents and educators, less time for testing and more time for learning,” but did not elaborate on how exactly three assessments throughout the year equate to less time for testing.

What about the federal law?

When it comes to statewide exams, the federal government is involved.

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, from 2001 to 2009. Credit: Wikipedia.

Dating back to the Republican George W. Bush administration in early 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind law required testing in most grades in reading and math and some grades in science. The Democratic Barack Obama administration continued that testing regimen in the successor to NCLB — Every Student Succeeds Act.

When DeSantis announced the move toward progress monitoring, there were questions as to whether proposed new testing system would meet federal requirements and whether Florida would need a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to implement the new system.

The SB 1048 bill analysis notes that the ESSA permits “a state or a consortia of states to use multiple statewide interim assessments that result in a single summative score, or a state can use a single summative assessment.”

But the bill analysis does not mention any waiver.

As of Jan. 14, the USDE said this in an email to the Phoenix:

“The department has not discussed this issue with the Florida Department of Education. In general, a state has discretion on designing an assessment system that best meets its needs, provided it meets the federal requirement.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.