Tenth-graders in Florida took the state’s standardized test in reading on a staggered schedule because there weren’t enough computers available for them all to take it at the same time, raising concerns that security of test questions could be compromised, the Miami Herald reported.

Students took the test in reading, which is part of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), in groups on a few different days last week. The Herald reported that as 10th grade students began to talk about the test, it became obvious to teachers that different groups were getting the same questions and reading passages, the paper said.

That causes concerns that the security of test questions had been compromised. The paper quoted Gregory Cizek, a test security expert and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as saying: “When there’s not enough computers for every kid, we have to widen the time frame to have kids cycle in and out of the test. I refer to it as a gaping door. It’s far too much time to allow a secure test to be exposed to the entire state full of students and educators.”

In fact, 10th grade reading was not the only grade level and subject in which students took the FCAT over two days. According to the state’s Department of Education Web site, grades 3-6 took their reading test on two different days too, as did grades 3-5 in math and grade 5 in science.

Though there’s nothing particularly new about kids cheating on tests, what is new this year is what is going to be done with the test scores.

For the first time in Florida, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be decided by how well his/her students do on these standardized tests. As in the past, students can’t graduate high school without passing the tests, and the test scores will affect the grades that the state government gives to individual schools.

Standardized tests were not designed to be used in high-stakes decisions such as these, but they are being used that way anyway. In fact, a number of other states are joining Florida in using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and educators. The high stakes attached to test scores has sparked new revelations of cheating, not just by students but by teachers and principals too. Confirmed cases of test cheating have been documented by FairTest, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce the misuse of tests, in 30 states and the District of Columbia over the past three academic years.

Last year, some 7,000 FCAT tests were invalidated because of suspected cheating.

Ironically, according to the Orlando Sentinel, the spring standardized testing season in Florida started with more computer-based tests as well as new measures designed to combat cheating. Students were asked to pledge — by either signing their names on a paper test or clicking a box on a computer test — that they would not cheat.

The Herald quoted Jessica Fishbein, an English teacher Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High in Northeast Miami-Dade, said it is common for students to talk to each other about tests.

“If I know that, and every teacher knows that, a testing company should know that. It is sheer laziness on their part not to make up different reading passages. I think there is no excuse for what they’ve done,” Fishbein said. “What the heck were they thinking?”

The company that administers and scores the FCAT is NCS Pearson.

According to the Miami Herald, a company spokesman referred questions to the state Department of Education.

Department of Education officials declined to discuss the issue in detail, the Herald said. Spokeswoman Jamie Mongiovi said in an e-mail to the paper that the state encourages school districts “to administer all assessments in as short a time frame as possible to minimize the sharing of content.”

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