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Sunshine State News: Testing So We Can Better Teach

Thursday, September 13, 2012

As states across the country move toward a systemic revamping of their educational assessment programs, it is a good time to evaluate how states use learning assessments and whether they can be better transformed as teaching/learning tools.

In addition to Florida’s FCAT, end of course exams, new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) assessments and the implementation of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are all being added to the student-achievement formula. This is going to take a concerted effort to coordinate parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers to make sure all are ready for higher expectations of learning.

Florida has shown great gains in measures of educational assessment since the 1990s. Much of this is due to the implementation of assessment mechanisms; the testing of our students along common measurements.

However, according to the latest ACT results, only 25 percent of students are proficient in all four core subjects — math, science, reading, and English. We cannot separate the knowledge and abilities of our graduates from our economic productivity. Now, with CCSS on the horizon, the bar is being raised significantly. We now have a chance to make Florida a national leader in innovation in the classroom and beyond.

When Gov. Rick Scott took office, his educational transition team called for a renaming of the Department of Education to the Department of Education Innovation. This was not mere symbolism. Innovation in all fields is what brings progress and improvements. Sure, there can be bumps along the way, but a willingness to change and improve is what can move Florida ahead of the other states in innovative practices.

No Child Left Behind created a standard of “proficient.” We must seek levels beyond this meager standard while endeavoring to bring every student at every level to higher levels of proficiency.

Learning assessments will continue to exist no matter their title or measured level of performance, but maybe there’s a better way to go about it. A possible option for testing could be to begin each year with a “no-stakes exam,” perhaps using the end-of-year exam from the previous year, so we capture where each student starts the new school year. Day cares and preschools already do this in Florida to assess the skill level of children as they grow in these critical years. Much the same, we could allow these “assessment tests” to become a tool for the teacher so they know what is missing from each student’s toolbox right away.

Then test at the end of year to determine how much progress has been made. This uses tests to teach rather than simply evaluate where students are in their progress. Many great online tools exist that can be developed so that teachers can get feedback quickly and assessments can become tools for teaching and learning.

Scott’s transition team also called for administering all assessments online. We could go one step further and begin to maintain online the assessments and standards expected that would be made available for all parents in an easy-to-understand toolbox. Schools can offer parent sessions to walk through where we have been and where we are going to be soon. All must share in the knowledge that standards are rising or we risk placing the goal of progress on the table of controversy if heightened expectations are not met.

The Scott transition team also called for Florida to “create a centralized knowledge center to ensure teachers and students have access to the highest quality virtual content available, shared curriculum and best practices while maintaining consistency in delivery systems.” I would add access by parents to this worthy goal. Adding testing tools to this “knowledge center” would serve to enhance performance and engagement.

We must never lower our expectations. The heightened expectations of the CCSS will demand improved academic prowess at every level. Students will emerge better prepared for post-secondary education or direct work force participation. They will emerge prepared to be lifelong learners and to compete in the global economy. School districts all over Florida are working to revise their curriculum while preparing our teachers for these new standards.

Florida can lead the nation in developing creative approaches to teaching and learning. We can burnish our reputation as a creative education innovation state. Using the approaching revisions to our testing and assessment structures is one step. Energizing and engaging parents in the learning processes using innovative online tools and strategies is another.

Florida has tremendous assets available. We have high-quality institutions of higher education and many pathways to educate those interested in teaching as a profession. We have a talented cadre of teachers and administrators at every level. We obviously care a great deal about education as it continues to remain a hot topic in political and policy discussions each year. We should use the approaching changes to bring talents together with a common focus of both raising the bar and meeting our own expectations.

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