Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush laughs during an event with The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in Chicago, Illinois, February 18, 2015.  The school reforms he implemented when he was governor of Florida have spread across the country. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Hundreds of thousands of students in Florida began taking the new computer-administered Florida Standards Assessment on Monday, March 2, with a number of school districts experiencing technological problems severe enough to cause testing to be suspended and rescheduled. The FSA is the state-mandated assessment Florida paid a private company to create in place of the PARCC exam, a Common Core test. Florida dropped the Common Core State Standards and developed a new set of standards that many said were remarkably similar to the Core.

Some parents in Florida (as in other states where new Common Core tests are being administered) decided to opt their children out of the exam, saying that the tests have little or no value and are part of a testing obsession that has harmed public education. Lynne Rigby, the mother of five children, a former teacher, and a photographer who lives in Seminole County, is one of them. In this post she explains the reasons she has decided to opt her children out of the Florida Standards Assessment. A full version of this post appeared on her blog, here. She is also a member of the Opt Out Seminole on Facebook, which advocates for multiple measures of authentic assessments, that do not punish children, teachers, and their schools.

 

By Lynne Rigby

I sent my opt out letter to the middle school on Friday.

First of all, everyone who knows me knows I’m a rule follower, always have been. I’m the “good girl.”  My kids are also good kids. They don’t cause trouble, they follow rules. They have a strong sense of right and wrong. The decision for my kids to refuse the test was not taken lightly. I would never put my kids in a position to fight what they perceive as MY fight. I would never put them in a situation that causes them distress or could jeopardize their academic success.

What does opting out really mean? Florida statute dictates that kids in Florida public schools must participate in the state assessments.  “Participate” is the key word here. When your child opts-out or refuses the test, they will sit for the test and sign in or break the seal, thus participating and then end the test. This will result in an NR2, which indicates that there is not enough data to score the test.  This year, the Seminole County School Board has stated that students who opt out of FSA will not be harmed in any way and will be treated with the utmost respect. Therefore, my kids and I felt safe to opt-out.

Here are my reasons:

The Test is Not a Valid Assessment Tool

Only students can see the test while they are taking it. Teachers and parents are never allowed to see the test and the student’s answers; they are only given a report of the subjects on the test.

How can we trust a test that we cannot see?  According to the Orlando Sentinel, the practice FSA had an error on it. How would anyone know if there was an error on the real test? Kids will just assume the question is hard and they don’t know the answer.

The Test is too Hard

I am 41. I graduated from the very schools my children attend.  I was in the top 10 percent of my class. I’ve navigated my life pretty damn well so far. I took the FSA practice tests. I should never stumble over a third-grade question, but I did. I should be able to do a decent job on the 10th grade test, but I didn’t. I had to walk away. The kids aren’t given that option. I invite you to take them – it’s not fun. Not even a little bit, but you need to see what they’re asking of these kids. I challenge our legislators and the Florida Department of Education to take these test while being recorded and have their scores made public.  If you are going to do this to our kids, you need to see exactly what they go through.

The Test is too Long

My seventh and eighth grader will have to sit for 9 hours and 20 minutes of standardized tests this year. Compare that to the LSAT or the MCAT which are approximately 5 hours to get into law /medical school.

Test Prep

My kids have spent hours learning about this test, how to take it, the computer tools, test-taking tips, etc. When you have to prepare the kids on how to take the test, the test becomes an accurate measure not of your knowledge, but how well you can take a test.

Grading the Test

The written portion of the test is not graded by educators, but by people hired by a staffing agency who are paid $11/hour and must fulfill a quota of how many to grade per hour.

There was also whispers of a computer that would grade the written portion of the exam. We aren’t just talking about the essay anymore; the kids have to explain their answer on the math portion and have short answers for the English/Language Arts test.  I had heard that one person and the computer would grade the essay and if the scores were very different, then the  essay would receive the computer score. Things from Tallahassee have been very, well, “fluid” with this testing; so I’m unsure of the current grading process.

Cut Scores

The great mystery of standardized test grading. What’s the passing score of the test? We don’t know until the cut score is set. What’s the cut score for FSA? Well, we have no idea because you need a baseline to establish a “proficient” score and we have no baseline for this test because it’s the first time our kids have taken this test. Here’s how Utah did it for the SAGE test (the test Florida is buying/borrowing/renting, and labeling the FSA).

The Board of Education acknowledges that in approving the proficiency levels, the number of students who will be assigned proficiency levels below expectations will increase. This is not due to decreased student performance, teacher instruction or school performance. It’s arbitrary. But remember, that number sticks with your kid for his educational career; it’s on his transcript and his school record. And it’s essentially made up by a mysterious panel of strangers.

Test results aren’t expected back until late fall

Let us suppose that the test is valid. If you get the results six months after the test was taken, how valid is it now? Maybe the kid had a breakthrough? Maybe he had tutoring.  Maybe he really connects to his English teacher this year and has made huge progress. Those results are not helpful to teachers, parents or students at that point. The child’s new teachers have already assessed the student’s needs well before October!

High Stakes

Teacher “effectiveness,” teacher merit-pay, school grades, district grades, “intensive” classes and loss of electives, third-grade retention, high school graduation and funding all tied to a test that Florida educators had no voice in choosing.  With so much riding on one test, of course the schools and teachers will do massive pushes to maximize the chances of kids doing well. I have no problem with assessments or even a fair standardized test, but let it be one data point. Do not allow it to be the end-all, be-all as it is now. I remember the good ol’ days of CTBS tests in Florida or CAT in Arizona. They both gave parents and teachers a glimpse into where the students were and it wasn’t scary for the kids.

Utah

I briefly mentioned Utah earlier. But Utah deserves its own section. Florida is “leasing” questions from Utah for a total of $16.1 million over the course of the next three years. This is on top of the $220 million we paid to AIR for the standardized test contract. One should ask, why Utah? Well, it’s not because of demographics. [The vast majority of public school students in Utah — 76.5 percent 2013-14– are white; 15.9 percent are Hispanic/Latino; and 1.3 percent are classified as Black/African American, according to state officials. In Florida, more than half of the student population is black or Hispanic.]

Please take a look at Utah’s test results. Thirty-seven percent of boys are “proficient” in Language Arts. That’s barely one-third of all boys! Only 21 percent of Hispanic boys are “proficient.”  Remember their demographics vs. Florida.

But wait, there’s more! Some lawmakers in Utah want the test gone!

 

Money and Motives

I am not a conspiracy theorist. Not in the least. I don’t think that Common Core is an indoctrination into Islam or communism. But what I do know now is that there is big money in education these days. Let’s break it down. The state of Florida is in it for $280 million thus far between AIR and Utah. The schools must all have sufficient bandwidth and computers.  Common Core Curriculum = new materials and text books. Failing kids = new remedial curriculum and more classroom time which means more books and tests. New test = new test prep. New math that parents don’t understand = tutoring centers, math apps, computer programs for home and school.

Meanwhile, as teachers and administrators struggled to meet the law’s demands, the education industry responded. For more than a century, private companies had sold textbooks and other educational supplies to public schools, but now, particularly with the advent of the Internet, the marketplace exploded. The range of new offerings included the state tests. In Florida alone, the British publishing conglomerate Pearson was paid $250 million over four years, to administer the FCAT. Then there were test-prep products, mostly digital, that promised to improve scores by helping teachers track students’ progress. (Neil Bush had entered the field, with Ignite, an education-software firm geared toward middle-school social studies, science, and math, which he started in 1999.)  The New Yorker had an extensive article on education reforms in Florida under former governor Jeb Bush, which have been the basis for reforms enacted in other states as well.  Education has become big business thanks to policies by Jeb Bush, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Pearson is a big winner. It is an industry and our kids are for sale.

Data Collection and Money

Students are being reduced to bits of data and that data is being collected and sold. It’s a cottage industry unto itself.

To Facilitate Change

My kids have spent countless hours on test prep of one kind or another:  a load test to see if the infrastructure was sufficient for the test to be given on the computer, practice tests, benchmark tests, pretests, getting familiar with the computer program, etc. They have gone on block scheduling two times in the last few months so they could take benchmarks. They have to condense 180 days of Algebra curriculum down to what? 100/120 days because of the FSA and the End of Course exam being given over a month before school is over? They have to be quiet, have alternate scheduling, sit in a single classroom and learn NOTHING during “testing season” because others are testing. This is time that they’ll never get back in their education. Libraries are closed, computers cannot be used for purposes other than testing because we cannot add more load to the broadband connection.

Teachers are losing control over what is happening in their classrooms because of mandates from legislators who are being lobbied by big education businesses. Teaching is an art. It is about connection. It is not about getting ready for a test that is designed for 70 percent to fail.  Our best teachers are leaving because they are being forced to do things in the classroom that they know is not good for OUR KIDS! They are leaving for OUR KIDS!

I want authentic assessments to count. I want my kids’ teachers to lead their instruction, not some conglomerate who happens to have holdings in an educational company. I want my kids to have time to not understand something in school and the teachers to have time to reteach it. I want them to have time to explore and learn deeply.

Parents have to be the ones to step up now to say that we will not let our children’s future be at the mercy of a of big business back-room deal.  How do we do that? We opt out. We refuse. We take a stand. We get our older kids involved in their education and let them use their voices.

All that money that I referenced before? Can you imagine if it was funneled back into the classroom? Into teacher retention and salaries?

You can read Lynne Rigby’s entire piece here.