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Answer Sheet: Florida Says It’s Ending Year-End, High-Stakes Standardized Testing. Here’s What It’s Really Doing.

Strange things happen routinely in Florida — but nobody saw this one coming: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced this week that he is overhauling Florida’s standardized testing regimen in a way that drew praise from some chronic critics and pointed questions from Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor who pioneered the system DeSantis says he is dumping.

The announcement sparked a slew of striking headlines, some of which said that DeSantis was ending (a) standardized testing, (b) high-stakes testing or (c) the dreaded springtime assessment season that has demoralized teachers and students for years.

In fact, he isn’t ending standardized testing, he isn’t ending high-stakes testing, and testing in the spring isn’t disappearing.

There’s plenty we don’t know about the new testing system: The governor offered few details, and the Florida Education Department did not provide any when asked. But it is the first time that a state has announced it is setting up a new accountability testing paradigm, and it could spur other states to make a similar change to eliminate highly unpopular assessment programs.

Here’s what DeSantis said he is doing:

The governor announced Tuesday that he would ask the Republican-led legislature (which will do pretty much anything he wants) to end the Florida State Assessment (FSA) system, which tests students in reading and math and other subjects at the end of each school year.

Those tests — and others like them used in every state for years — are given at the end of each academic year, virtually always after significant test prep that eats up days of instructional time. Scores are not available until after the school year ends, and teachers don’t know which questions students got wrong.

The new Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, DeSantis said, will give three short exams to monitor student progress in fall, winter and spring, giving teachers more time to teach as well as real-time data to target instruction — and will cost less money. He said the exams would be individualized, which would mean online adaptive tests that some Florida districts already use for progress monitoring.

“We will continue to set high standards, but we also have to recognize it is the year 2021 and the FSA is, quite frankly, outdated,” DeSantis said. “There will be 75 percent less time for testing, which will mean more time for learning.”

Many educators like progress monitoring for the reasons the governor enunciated: that it helps them measure growth in their students and adapt instruction in real time. But under the new plan, the state will decide which assessments are used, taking that choice away from districts and teachers.

Exactly which assessments will be used remains to be seen, as does the answer to these questions: How will three short tests a year substitute for math and English and end-of-course subject exams that make up the current FSA suite of assessments? Will there be three short tests for each subject? Will the end-of-course exams in subjects other than math and English remain as they are now?

Another key issue: Was DeSantis saying that he was giving up the high stakes currently attached to test scores?

On the same day of the governor’s announcement, the Florida Education Department issued two lists — one of the things that are wrong with the FSA, and another of things that are good about the system to be created.

One item on the FSA-is-bad list is this: “high stakes test.” Student FSA scores are used for things that include deciding whether to allow a third-grade student move to fourth grade or a high school senior to graduate, assigning grades to schools and states on how well they are doing, giving bonuses to teachers, and determining eligibility for vouchers.

Assessment experts have long said that the exams are not intended to be used in that way, but states have used them in that way anyway.

The Education Department’s list praising the new tests (see below) doesn’t mention anything about high stakes. So is DeSantis really ending not only the FSA tests but also the high stakes attached to them? He was asked about this Tuesday when the announcement was made, and he let Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran respond.

No, Corcoran said, the high stakes linked to the current end-of-the-year tests would not go away. They would remain unchanged.

If the stakes aren’t going away, that means the spring test will provide results used for high-stakes purposes. It is also possible that the other two exams could have stakes attached to them too. Some teachers are always concerned that teachers could be prepping kids for three standardized tests a year instead of one.

“I suspect the time needed for state tests will be about the same: three hours for each subject,” said veteran teacher Gregory Sampson. “With high stakes continuing to be attached, there could be even more test prep as districts have three tests to be ready for instead of one. Districts will probably do pre-progress monitoring tests to anticipate what their results will be.”

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by Bush, who pioneered and has continued to champion the high-stakes standardized testing model used across the country, raised similar concerns (the irony can’t be overstated here). After praising DeSantis for moving “statewide assessments to an online and adaptive testing approach,” a foundation release asked:

  • Does changing the nature of teacher-driven progress-monitoring tools create high-stakes stressors on students three times a year?
  • Will educators be required to teach on a schedule set by Tallahassee to be “on track” for three statewide progress monitoring tests?
  • Will the spring progress monitoring test simply be a replacement for the end-of-year test and result in teachers having less time to cover the full year of content?

Cindy Hamilton, co-founder of the Opt Out Florida Network, who has long criticized the state’s testing scheme, put it this way: “The Florida Department of Education has made it clear that these stakes are not going away. School grades, teacher evaluations, placement decisions, third-grade retention, those things are all still going to happen. With these stakes attached, the test becomes less about the student and more about the punitive consequences.”

Some Florida assessment reform activists also say they are concerned that DeSantis may be gearing up for a fight with the federal government.

The U.S. Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor K-12 education law to No Child Left Behind, requires that schools test students in reading and math once a year in grades three through eight, as well as once in high school — and in science three times, once each in grade school, middle school and high school.

The DeSantis plan has this timeline: The last FSA exams will be administered in spring 2022, and the following year will be a “pause” in accountability while “a new baseline for accountability” will be set. In the 2023-24 school year, a “unified” progress monitoring system will be established, new cut scores will be set and there will be a “return to accountability.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Education Department said that DeSantis had not told the federal agency of Florida’s plans. States have leeway in creating their own accountability systems, the spokesperson said, but they must meet federal requirements.

Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said there is concern that DeSantis may be getting ready to “bash Washington for inhibiting [states’ rights] by goading the U.S. Department of Education into rejecting a scheme that fails to comply with federal law under the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

After DeSantis made his announcement, he received praise from at least one critic: Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union.

“It’s not everything we want, but it’s a huge step, and I hope it opens the door to more conversation about how to more effectively assess students,” Spar said, adding that the union wants to negotiate with the governor and legislature about the new system.

Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who has bucked the governor by imposing a mask mandate in the district’s schools, also praised the governor’s move. He tweeted: “Fewer, better state assessments with greater reliance on ongoing, real-time progress monitoring data enable timely academic recalibration opportunities that are right for Florida’s kids.”

While many in the education world lamented the quality of the end-of-year exams students have been taking, there is no guarantee that the new ones will be better.

The use of online adaptive exams means that the tests can be individualized as each student goes through the questions. If a student gets a question wrong, an easier question may appear next — which would be different from one given to a student who got the first one correct.

There have been studies showing that computer adaptive testing (CAT) can cut testing time by 50 percent or more without any loss in measurement precision. But there are important issues that could be of concern to educators.

For one thing, students usually can’t return to a previous question to answer it.

For another, questions on linear standardized tests are reviewed by subject matter experts, but that is difficult if not impossible to do with computer adaptive tests because there are many more questions and combinations of questions that are utilized, experts say. One report on CAT said that if “a CAT selects items solely based on the test-takers’ ability, content balance and coverage may be easily distorted for some test-takers.” Also, questions will be used repeatedly and therefore can be shared, raising test security concerns.

In a separate concern, student privacy advocates also worry that these online tests gather an enormous amount of student data that can be sold to third parties.

DeSantis’s announcement reflects what has been in recent years growing disenchantment with standardized testing, which in the past two decades reached a point where kids were going to testing pep rallies and spending hundreds of hours preparing for exams. Curriculums narrowed because only math and reading were tested, and schemes to use the test scores for various accountability purposes got out of hand.

The 2020 testing season was canceled by the Trump administration when schools were shut at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Biden administration required states to give the tests this year — despite criticism that the scores would reflect what everybody already knew: Students lost ground because of the pandemic.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said earlier this year that he would be open to talking to states about changes in their testing system — but it remains to be seen if DeSantis’s plan will pass federal muster.

As always, the devil is in the details, Schaeffer said.

“Will Florida eliminate misuses of test scores, such as requiring specific scores for third-grade promotion, high school graduation, school and district grades, teacher bonuses, voucher eligibility, etc.?” he said.

“What specific ‘progress monitoring’ assessments will the state require, and how will their results be used? Will the federal government approve a system that does not rely on ‘summative’ year-end tests as the Every Student Succeeds Act appears to require?

“Until issues like these are addressed, Florida education stakeholders will not know whether the governor’s proposal amounts to significant assessment reform or just another case of ‘changing the name to protect the guilty,’ just as Florida did in replacing its Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests with the Florida Standards Assessments several years ago,” Schaeffer said.

Here what the state says is bad about the once-a-year spring testing that it has had for decades:

  • Takes days to administer, meaning less learning time
  • High-stakes test
  • Encourages narrow focus on tests
  • Based on Common Core
  • Not customizable to each student
  • Fails to give parents timely information to support their children at home
  • Too late for meaningful conversations between parents, students and teachers to modify instruction

Here’s what the state says is good about the change:

  • Takes hours rather than days to administer
  • Three opportunities to check in on growth
  • 75 percent less testing time means more time for learning
  • Informs teachers so they can better help students
  • Based on new B.E.S.T. standards
  • Customizable, unique to each student
  • Timely data during the school year
  • Gives schools two opportunities to improve

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.