Florida is teetering on the edge of an enormous testing fiasco. Soon large numbers of students will take the un-piloted Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) for the first time. A few weeks ago the state suffered an unmitigated disaster when it administered the smaller FSA Writing test. Computers shut down, students lost work, couldn’t log on and were unable to start or complete their tests.

The FSA stems from Florida’s last minute rejection of PAARC. What followed was a rushed effort to rent questions from Utah’s test bank for $16 million dollars. Florida leaders were undeterred when sixty percent of all students failed the Utah test and uninterested in the vast demographic difference in our states. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, the Florida Department of Education and Legislators left students, teachers and districts dangling with no plan to transition or establish a baseline for the first FSA administered by American Institutes for Research via a $220 million dollar contract.

Instead of pausing Florida’s flawed A-F Accountability scheme, lawmakers are determined to use the FSA to deny diplomas, evaluate teachers, cancel electives and determine mandatory retention or remediation for all students grade 3-12.   The state has continued to deny that a serious problem exists with the FSA rollout.

Here’s a first person account from a teacher-witness to the FSA:

I teach special needs students that are on track for a standard diploma, therefore they are required to take the state’s standardized assessments. Their parents, teachers and most of the students themselves know that many of them are not reading on grade level.  Still, they are made to sit through test prep lessons and take a test that will show what we already know: they are below grade level. It will not tell us what grade level they are currently on or how much they have grown academically in a year, but they must take the test. Some of them will be retained if they don’t have a prior retention. The message they get from retention is, “We know you have a learning disability and we know you have made a year’s progress or more this year, but because you can’t pass a test that it beyond your reading level, you will be punished.”

I have administered FCAT to my students for many years. As a Special Education Teacher, I am allowed to read certain portions of these tests to my students as a part of their accommodations. I was flabbergasted at the difficulty of the FSA this year.

Every grade level has a Lexile (reading comprehension) expectation for the end of the school year.  Because I teach students of various grade levels, I am able to look at a book or passage and give a reasonable estimate of the Lexile level. I can say with all certainty that most of the questions and answers on FSA exceeded the end of the year benchmark maybe even as much as 200 points. This means that our students are being tested on passages in March that are at a readability level that is expected in October of the next grade level.

Another surprising feature of the FSA was the poor structure and format of the test. Some of the questions asked students to underline a sentence in an excerpt from the passage for a certain purpose.  The excerpt had numbered paragraphs just like they did in the original passage. The problem with the numbered paragraphs in the question was that most of my students thought they had to underline a sentence from each paragraph because they looked like separate questions. The directions stated to underline one sentence from the entire excerpt, not from each paragraph. Many of my students asked for clarification and inadvertently skipped answering some questions in the fill in the blank paragraphs.  Some of the answer choices wrapped around onto the next line, which I assume many of my students did not see. Simply put, the test was not user friendly, especially for learning disabled students.

Usually my special needs students finish standardized tests before the allotted time (even though they get extended time).  Eighty to ninety percent of my students were working beyond the 80 minutes allowed by the FSA. If my students were working as long as they did, I’m confident that many other regular education peers did not have enough time to finish their tests or had to rush “Christmas Tree” their remaining answers.

What politicians don’t fully appreciate is that a pool of informed witnesses has been present at all times, watching. Florida has horribly disrespected teachers with its accountability system.  They work in a climate of fear and intimidation and threats of ending careers if they talk. Like parents, teachers show up every day because of the children.  They’re certainly not coming back for the pay or the joy of seeing their creative learning ideas replaced by the state’s wooden talking points.

Teachers want to teach. They don’t want to be political pawns, but high stakes testing is sucking the soul out of public education, so the time has come to speak.  This teacher is a hero who must remain anonymous.  If you have an inside standardized test story to share please contact this blogger directly.  kathleenoropeza@gmail.com