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Role of standardized testing in the classroom called into question

By Maggie Seppi

Standardized testing has long been an integral part of determining a student’s ability to advance academically, but educators worry it detracts from what could be a more beneficial curriculum.

Claire Gonzalez, a UNF associate professor of secondary and foundations educational psychology, said while these tests include sound educational substance, they affect teachers’ ability to focus on students’ other needs.

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is the standardized test required in the primary and secondary public school systems. It is administered annually to all public school students. A student’s grade determines the discipline of the test.

In grades 3-11, students are required to take the reading and math portion only; fifth, eighth and 11th grade students take the FCAT Science exam; fourth, eighth and 10th grade students take the FCAT Writes exam.

The results of the first reading and mathematics portion of the FCAT were reported for students and schools when the test was first administered in 1998. The FCAT is reviewed and revised exclusively by the Florida Department of Education and the Bureau of K-12 Assessment, which is responsible for monitoring statewide student assessment programs, grades the results.

Private school students do not take the FCAT. They take a similar test called the Stanford Achievement Test.

“The problem is when teachers are just focused on passing the FCAT because many concepts are left on the sidelines,” Gonzalez said. “But we know state testing itself creates better student performance.”

“The research tells us that when we have a state assessment, such as the FCAT, students perform better academically,” Gonzalez said.

Each year, public schools receive a grade, ranging from A to F, based upon students’ overall performance on the FCAT. A school’s grade relies on how much students improve on tests from years prior and affects how much funding a school will receive.

The FCAT is the deciding factor in the academic fate of students and teachers. But some educators argue the teaching-to-the-test method has its disadvantages, such as overlooking a student’s creative ability in subjects like art or theater.

Joseph Soares, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and author of “SAT Wars,” invests his complaints solely in the SAT and ACT as a means of gauging students’ intelligence. He said schools overlook one indicator that can best predict how well their students will do in college: high school grades.

“High school grades don’t cost extra to accumulate and don’t require extra preparation, like the SAT and ACT,” Soares said. “And it’s a bit of a scam that America doesn’t understand that $4 billion every year goes to test preparations that contribute zip to our ability to know who will do well in college.”

Without the SAT and ACT, admissions offices could focus more on the essays and recommendation letters students submit, Soares said. And things that measure creativity, leadership, volunteer work and entrepreneurial solutions.

Still, others maintain the test standards taught in the classroom are similar to a standard curriculum and can facilitate the learning of material not associated with standardized tests.

The results are used for instructional purposes in the classroom, said Tom Scott, Duval County’s director of testing.

Upon receiving the results, teachers can determine which areas students are performing poorly in and modify their instructional delivery to promote better learning and retention in those areas, he said.

Concerns with standardized testing lie not only in their ability, or inability, to determine a student’s progression, but also whether they should determine teachers’ salaries in Florida.

Signed into law in March, Gov. Rick Scott’s merit pay bill plans to end teachers’ tenure provisions. Starting in 2014, teachers’ pay will be determined by students performance on standardized tests.

Some argue the tests have strayed from duties they were originally intended to fulfill and hinder already struggling schools.

“Teachers have always used assessments,” said John W. White, a UNF foundations and secondary education assistant professor. “Now it’s just connected to money — meaning funding and teacher salaries.”

Before, the results were intended to predict how well students would fare their first year of college. Now, they measure a person’s scholastic aptitude, White said. But the problem with that method is it doesn’t predict how hard a person is willing to work once they get to college.

“This high stakes testing environment is discouraging students from becoming teachers,” White said. “Teachers have little desire to work at struggling urban schools where students’ performance on standardized tests is often subpar.”

A recent proposal, made by higher-ups in the school system and parents and teachers, may result in a more difficult FCAT in the near future. The new requirements would change the amount of points a student needs to pass the various sections of the test, which would subsequently give rise to an increased amount of C, D and F schools and a decreased amount of A and B schools, according to a Florida Times-Union article.

Determining how to facilitate a more realistic curriculum, while still making necessary assessments, is a balancing act that school systems and educators strive to master.

However, White offers a place to start.

“We need to professionally train teachers and trust them to do their job,” he said.

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