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Updated: 02/19/2015 06:32:53PM

School testing protocols need review

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Polk County’s top school district leaders announced earlier this month that they are confident they can bring about improvements in standardized test scores of the county’s students.

Some scores in the past year’s tests went up, and some went down. The layman trying to figure out how good the good news is and how bad the bad news is faces a challenge.

School Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy says improvement is both needed and achievable.

There is nothing new about the continuing need for better education for success in an ever more complex society. And testing is the means by which learning is measured. It keeps students and educators on their toes. But it can be overdone.

The legislative mantra of “accountability in education” is the driver behind much of the emphasis on testing. It’s a handy campaign slogan, one that is unencumbered by the day-to-day classroom realities with which teachers and students must cope.

State-mandated tests are taking an increasing amount of classroom time, particularly at the high school level. The crunch begins in March, right around Spring Break, and lasts until school is out in early June. It is a source of logistic challenges for administrators and frustration for teachers.

It is difficult to summarize the testing program in a few sentences, but we will try.

FCAT reading tests are conducted in grades 3 through 10. A high school student must make a passing score to graduate, giving two more years beyond the 10th grade test to meet the standard.

Students must pass the End of Course test in Algebra 1 in order to graduate. Algebra 1 generally is offered in all high school grades (9 through 12), and in some middle schools (grades 6 through 8). That gives students several years to establish mastery in Algebra 1.

End of Course testing also is conducted in geometry, biology, and U.S. history.

Different End of Course tests are conducted at the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) levels.

Students are given End of Course tests many weeks before the course ends.

Add to the scheduling of all of these tests the need to retest those students who fail to make qualifying scores the first time around, and it is easy to understand the lament of one teacher who observed: “We can’t do much teaching after mid-March.”

Schools also must conduct “progress monitoring tests” three times a year in an effort to spot students who are falling behind in subject mastery.

These state-prescribed tests are in addition to the periodic classroom testing on which report card grades are based.

“Students are testing a lot,” Bartow High School Principal Emilean Clemons told us, in what we would call a masterpiece of understatement. “It creates a tremendous amount of stress for students. They become frustrated.”

In addition to the impact on individual students, the combined results of state-mandated tests become the basis for grades given to schools. While there are incentives for the best performing schools and mandated remediation for lowest performing ones, Clemons believes school and community pride probably is the greatest motivator.

The disruption that voluminous mandated testing creates in the learning process is an issue that Bartow High School’s community support organization, B.E.S.T.T. (Best in Education for Students of Today and Tomorrow) has discussed at length.

B.E.S.T.T. has no magic solution for the blizzard of tests and the negative impact on classroom teaching. Neither does this newspaper.

But we believe that the Legislature, in its quest for “accountability in education,” should spend more time listening to grassroots educators — teachers, principals, and district superintendents.

As Florida embarks on the “Florida Standards” program, which it chose as its path to educational excellence instead of the Common Core approach, it would do well to try to make its testing protocols a measure of — not an impediment to — student learning.

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