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Florida weighing questions over FCAT replacement

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Published:   |   Updated: July 29, 2013 at 06:47 PM

CLEARWATER - The closer Florida public schools get to implementing new Common Core curriculum standards, the more top lawmakers question the new standardized tests that will come along with it.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford released a letter to Education Commissioner Tony Bennett this month urging the state to back out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. That's the name of the standardized test set to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in the 2014-2015 school year, and now others are beginning to question the test's validity.

"We need an assessment system that measures how well our students have mastered the content and how well they really understand what is expected of them," said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, in a Thursday letter to Bennett. "Implementation of the standards will only be as strong as the assessment instruments that measure knowledge of the material."

Florida, along with Massachusetts and Louisiana, helped create PARCC, a national consortium of states, to develop assessments for the Common Core; but the two lawmakers want the state to either consider other options or develop its own test.

"Too many questions remain unanswered with PARCC," Weatherford and Gaetz wrote in their letter. "Our schools, teachers and families have worked too hard for too long for our system to collapse under the weight of an assessment system that is not yet developed, designed nor tested."

One of the "serious issues" the two noted in their letter is the extra time it would take to administer PARCC testing, which can be spread out over a 20-day window; the FCAT is administered over 12 days. A third-grader taking the FCAT has to sit for about four hours and 40 minutes over four days to be tested in reading and math, but the same students would have to sit for eight hours over six to nine days, according to the PARCC.

The PARCC also administers mid-year tests, and the Florida Department of Education and PARCC have both identified the need for additional instructional time for students to "demonstrate knowledge and skills," the letter said.

Policies for releasing test scores and ensuring that student information remains secure have yet to be finalized, the letter said.

Chad Colby, the communications director for Achieve, the company that manages the PARCC said results would be back before the end of the school year and that security policies are in the works.

The PARCC is also a computer-based test and outlines that schools should, at minimum, have one computer for every two students, a recommendation the Florida Department of Education said no school district in the state is equipped to meet. The current state average is about three students for each computer.

Test retakes are now done online throughout the county, but there is still a concern about whether students are being evaluated on their test-taking ability or their knowledge of the content, especially younger students and those with disabilities or from poor families, said Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego.

New cost estimates released by PARCC last week say the test would cost about $29.50 per student, about $1 less than it costs to issue the FCAT. However, a paper version of the PARCC could cost an additional $3 or $4, though costs are subject to change as the test is further developed.

Gaetz and Weatherford suggested creating a "Florida Plan" assessment that would be phased in no sooner than 2015-2016. It should be a combination of state-approved end-of-course assessments, existing tests in other states and "well-established alternative assessment options," such as the ACT and SAT, their letter said. A technology-based assessment is imperative for future success, but creating it shouldn't be a rushed process, they argued.

The ACT and SAT are proven effective and comparable from state to state, said Democratic state Rep. Carl Zimmerman, a teacher at Countryside High School in Clearwater. For the Common Core to be successful, there has to be one single test for every state, a "gold standard," he said. If every state has a different way of testing students or measuring what they've learned, the purpose behind Common Core falls apart, and Florida schools need to be held accountable, he said.

"Testing in Florida high schools is total bedlam right now," Zimmerman said. "They keep forcing these changes on us in a patchwork fashion, and the idea that we keep moving and leaving behind things that have worked for a very long time is reckless. I'm very suspicious of financial motives of trying to come up with our own unique tests; but before we can backtrack to things that actually worked, there are people that have to admit the directions we've chosen are not successful, and I don't see that happening."

Grego served on a committee of superintendents that met with Bennett in March to discuss a "Plan B" standardized test for 2014-2015 in case the PARCC test isn't ready. It's hard to say whether the PARCC is the best fit, as issues of technological infrastructure and the instructional time the test could eat away at are "real concerns," he said.

Ideally, PARCC representatives and Florida education experts would try find a compromise to alleviate those concerns without abandoning the test all together, Grego said.

"Now, we're still testing with the FCAT 2.0, yet our instruction and our content is moving to the Common Core," Grego said. "We can't keep doing that because what we're teaching and what we're testing shouldn't be different. Whatever we choose to use, whether it's PARCC or another form of in-house test, it needs to be fair and it needs to make sense without taking up an unrealistic amount of instructional time."

Until now, education officials had seemingly been supportive of adopting the PARCC test, but it is possible to make the transition to the Common Core Standards by the target date of 2014-2015 without the exam. Last week, North Dakota abandoned the PARCC to join forces with another Common Core consortium of states called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Georgia announced last week that it will abandon PARCC to write its own test, and Alabama, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Michigan and Indiana have also shied away from the test.

If more states follow suit and leave the PARCC, the test may cease to exist. At least 15 states must be PARCC members, or else it will lose the $186-million federal grant that provides it's funding. The Common Core will be adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Smarter Balanced has 24 member states, while 18 states are members of the PARCC and eight don't belong to a consortium.

Groups opposed to the Common Core, such as the Florida Parents Against Common Core, are hoping the problems associated with testing may lead some states to abandon the Common Core altogether.

"Why would you go and buy a house if you haven't even seen it?" said the group's Northeast Florida coordinator, Debbie Higgenbotham. "These tests, and even the Common Core haven't even been developed and yet we're willing to overhaul our entire system to implement them."

But education leaders across the state, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, are strong advocates of the Common Core, and Florida won't back out anytime soon, Grego said.

Colby said PARCC is working with Bennett to respond to the legislators concerns.

"They raise critical issues that deserve serious consideration as I make a decision in the coming days," Bennett said in a statement.

adawson@tampatrib.com

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