Math problem: Would bills to change Florida student testing mean more exams, or fewer?

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | March 3, 2022

Florida lawmakers want to scrap big, end-of-year standardized tests and instead give students shorter “check-in” exams, which they say will give teachers more timely information on student performance and reduce the time youngsters spend testing.

But some teachers and education advocates fear the proposals — announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis in September and outlined in two bills nearing passage in the Legislature — will do the opposite.

They argue the bills would force students to take more, not fewer, tests in the coming years, adding to schools’ already crowded testing calendar.

“Teachers, students and parents were under the impression this bill would reduce testing, and it clearly does not,” saidHeidi Goicoechea, an English teacher at St. Cloud High School. The Osceola County teacher was one of about a dozen educators who spoke against the bill in Tallahassee last week.

Experts also note that “progress monitoring” — giving short tests throughout the school year, as lawmakers propose — is already routine practice in most schools. But research shows that test data, though reviewed regularly by teachers, hasn’t led to students scoring higher on end-of-the-year state tests.

“It’s not showing up as it’s making any difference in flat-out student achievement,” said Sue Brookhart, a retired professor from Duquesne University’s school of education who is co-authoring a book chapter on the subject.

She said that is likely because the progress-monitoring data does not provide enough specific information for teachers to make meaningful changes in their lessons. And, she added, “I don’t need a test to tell me which kids can’t read in my class.”

Book reading club at Sawgrass Bay Elementary School in Clermont, Fla., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Book reading club at Sawgrass Bay Elementary School in Clermont, Fla., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Republican lawmakers, however, insist their bills will help Florida’s public schools and cut down on testing time in the years ahead. Their bills, now ready for a floor vote, advanced with full Democratic support in Senate committees, though some Democrats in the House voted against them.

“I think that’s a win-win for students, for teachers and for our entire state,” said Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, a former Orange County Public Schools teacher and the sponsor of the House bill (HB 1193).

DeSantis announced the new testing plan in September, calling it a “big deal” that would reduce testing and give teachers and parents better information about student progress. The Florida Department of Education estimated testing would be cut by 75%.

Plasencia’s bill and a similar Senate proposal (SB 1048) would scrap the current Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA, given in language arts and math to students in grades 3 to 10 each spring. Students would take FSA exams for the last time this spring.

In FSA’s place, GOP leaders would require students to take the shorter progress-monitoring tests at the start, middle and end of the school year. The final test would be a “comprehensive” one.

Sen. Many Diaz, R-Hialeah, sponsor of the Senate measure, said the bills may need more work but they have the potential to be “game-changing for our students, for our teachers and for our parents.”

Union reversed early support

For critics, the math doesn’t add up.

They see one test being replaced by three, with the final one still a factor in high-stakes decisions such as whether students are promoted to fourth grade or earn high school diplomas.

They note the bills do not do away with state tests in algebra, biology, civics, geometry, science or U.S. history — all also given each spring — nor do they address school district-required “progress-monitoring” tests, whichalready areadministered several times a year.

“My kids so far have tested at least nine days. Nine solid days,” said Kim Stralow, a civics teacher in the Leon County school district. “That’s nine days I can’t teach them civics.”

She and others who testified at a House committee last week, and at Senate panels previously, said testing already eats up too much class time and the legislation will not fix the problem.

“This bill does not provide what teachers and parents asked for, specifically time for learning,” said Cathy Boehme, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

The union, joining other educators, praised DeSantis when he announced he wanted to curtail testing but was critical of the bills as soon as they were filed.

But Plasencia and others said they expect school districts would drop their own progress-monitoring tests, saving them money and avoiding duplicative testing. The Polk County school district, for example, could save about $7 million a year if it skips its tests in favor of the new state ones, he said.

The bill, he added, also requires a study, to be completed in early 2025, to look at more ways to “reduce the assessment footprint” in coming years.

A first grade class at Sunrise Elementary in Kissimmee, Fla., Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.
A first grade class at Sunrise Elementary in Kissimmee, Fla., Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Diaz said the study would look at whether the first two progress monitoring tests might be all that is needed for students who are learning skills as they should. That could eliminate the third test for some youngsters, he noted.

The new tests, all taken on a computer, might be “adaptive,” meaningthey would provide new questions based on how students performed on earlier ones. That might also mean shorter tests for students mastering expected math and language arts skills.

Plus, he added, the new tests will provide “real-time reports for teachers to be able to adjust instruction.”

‘Instructional days are gold’

Schools across Central Florida, the state and the country have been using “progress monitoring” for years to check what students learned, hoping to provide help before children take state exams in the spring.

Orange County Public Schools, for example, notes on its testing calendar that all students in kindergarten through eighth grade take such tests in both reading and math three times a year.

“This is ubiquitous in schools, teachers studying student data,” said Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

But like Brookhart, Hill reviewed studies on the practice and found it had “no beneficial impact for students.”

The problem: “The data doesn’t tell teachers what to do next,” Hill said.

Teachers can see they need to reteach certain skills but the test data doesn’t tell them how to do that in different ways that might help their struggling students. Plus, even data provided quickly comes as the class has moved on, so going back to reteach concepts isn’t easy, Hill said.

Because reviewing progress-monitoring data doesn’t help, Hill said she worries such testing amounts to a harmful loss of class time.

Ashely Modesto, a math teacher at Edgewater High School in Orange, told lawmakers that was her fear. “We’re losing more and more instructional days,” she said. “Instructional days are gold.”

But lawmakers who have voted for the bill in committee said it will do what Floridians want.

“I think we all know a loud cheer went across the state from parents, instructors and teachers that we’re going to look at testing and see if we can do a better job,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola.

Critics, however, are not convinced.

“This is a bait-and-switch and everyone seems to be swallowing it, swallowing the governor’s promise, hook line and sinker, and it’s very discouraging,” said Marie-Claire Leman, a Leon County parent and member of the Orlando-based advocacy group Fund Education Now, at a committee hearing on the bill. “Because mark my words: Your constituents will notice next year an increase in testing.”

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