Students will take Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests one more year before switching to tougher standardized tests under the Common Core, a set of nationwide academic standards.
But armed with mixed results from this year’s test and pressure to reinvent their school curriculum by 2014-2015, many teachers in Pinellas County and across the state say they’re anxious about the change.
“A lot of people are really worried about it, and inevitably it’s going to make our test scores go down when we start transitioning,” said Nicole Alderman, a third-grade teacher at Cypress Woods Elementary.
Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett has said Florida schools need a “full-frontal assault” to improve scores next academic year. Students in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties lagged behind the remainder of the state in test scores. But beyond “making sure the best teachers are in every school, especially those with poor performance” and focusing on math and science instruction, Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said the only changes students will see in county classrooms next year will be to prepare them for a different test, the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC.
If anything, this year’s FCAT scores underline why a switch is important, Cook said.
“If the FCAT was truly aligned to the standards that we’re supposed to be teaching, it shouldn’t be such a big deal,” Cook said. “I think the only ‘full-frontal assault’ we should make is to make sure next year’s FCAT is aligned with the standards set for us so every day a student is in class is FCAT prep. … Hopefully that’s what our new Common Core tests will do.”
This year’s FCAT had tougher reading, math and science standards, which resulted in fewer students scoring on grade level. The Florida School Boards Association, which offered Common Core training sessions for school board members Thursday during its annual spring conference, passed a resolution against high-stakes testing last year, and many are pushing legislators to put a moratorium on FCAT next year while students adjust to Common Core.
But Cook said the likelihood of that happening is unknown. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators in Pinellas County will spend the summer learning how to get each grade level up to speed with Common Core, which slowly has been introduced into classrooms since 2011.
“We’re test crazy. We are over-testing our kids,” said Alan Sitomer, an author and California’s 2007 teacher of the year who was keynote speaker at Thursday’s Teacher Leaders Institute at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Melissa Erickson, a longtime leader with the Hillsborough County PTA and a former teacher, led school board members through Common Core training. She said the new testing will do a better job of educating students.
“Teaching what you test has become the norm in education — whatever it is, if it’s in the test we teach it,” Erickson said. “These tests are being developed along with the curriculum and are given throughout the school year and not three days in March, where you don’t get the results back till next year, and then there’s nothing the teacher can do to help students that are not achieving.”
The theory behind the Common Core tests is that teachers can issue tests on their own schedules and after students learn the material upon which they will be tested, Erickson said. Ideally, she said, students won’t even know they’re taking standardized tests.
Perhaps most importantly, she said, the test questions also require students to give text-based answers, not just correct answers. “That’s how a lot of kids get away with never learning to read,” Erickson said. “They can answer the questions because they have that knowledge from somewhere else, but they can’t prove that it was in the text that they just read, so there’s no real comprehension.”
At Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary School, finding the balance between the new standards and the current curriculum will be a juggling act, said fourth-grade teacher Donna Quinn.
“Our biggest challenge for teachers right now is having the time to plan out how we’re going to start tailoring our lessons toward the Common Core but still make sure kids can perform on the FCAT,” Quinn said. “Common Core is very different for each grade level and assumes that students come in already knowing everything they were supposed to learn. So now we have to make sure that they really know everything we expect them to.”
Whether it’s FCAT or just preparing for the newest standardized test, Sitomer said next year will be tough, but teachers can’t be blamed
“Right now we’re like an overweight, out of shape, fast-food eating person about to run a marathon,” Sitomer said. “The first couple of trainings are going to be rough, but is it good to get into shape? Yes. Will 2013-2014 be rough? Yes. In the long run, will we better served for the hard road we’re about to travel? Absolutely.”