Manatee School district's end of semester, course exams prompt community concerns

MANATEE COUNTY -- High-stakes testing delivered a major fail this month.

End-of-course and end-of-semester exams that are based on new Florida Standards -- a modification of Common Core -- have left teachers, students, parents and administrators frustrated and upset. The tests, it appears, failed to provide enough information about what is being taught and learned in Manatee schools.

Schools and district reputations, student grades and progression, teacher evaluations and, subsequently, salaries all hinge on the new high-stakes tests, which are completely unfamiliar to those administering and taking them. The tension and anxiety bubbled over in the first week of January, as students took end-of-semester assessment tests and state-

mandated end-of-course exams using state-created questions for the first time. These tests, while created at the district level, feature questions from a state bank and are different from the tests students are used to taking.

In a letter addressed to parents and schools dated Jan. 20, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Diana Greene acknowledges the frustrations caused by the new assessments and the cloud of uncertainty around them. The letter was sent to reassure parents that district officials feel the frustration and are working on the issues.

"It's a remarkable amount of pressure on students and on teachers," Greene told the Bradenton Herald last week. "We have no idea how valid or reliable these items are."

Officials in Saraosta County faced similar situations, using the state bank for questions and administering new tests for the first time, but constant communication with teachers helped alleviate problems, said Denise Cantalupo, the director of research, assessment, evaluation and school improvement for Sarasota County School District.

"It's all very new and novel," she said. "We are on a furious fast track because of the Legislature."

Districts had to put the tests together by pulling questions from a state "item bank," which weren't as robust as officials would have liked. The tests included some questions and concepts students and teachers hadn't covered yet, or hadn't covered in the same way the question was asked. Teachers weren't allowed to create the tests or even see them beforehand because the tests are tied to their evaluations and salary.

This is the first year districts have had to administer an end-of-course exam for each course offered. In Manatee County, that meant the district had to create more than 800 different exams to fit each of the courses offered. The first semester ended Jan. 16. While some courses in the district are yearlong, and won't see the new, mandated end-of-course exams until the spring, a number of end-of-course exams were administered in January.

Complaints have ranged from test questions focusing on material not yet covered, to complaints of district technology malfunctioning during the exams and students taking tests on days they hadn't been scheduled.

The new exams require a certain level of security to ensure integrity, which makes the tests feel more like state-administered exams, rather than an assessment on mastery of a subject.

Greene said the district shares the community's concerns, especially about pulling the questions from the state bank. Because the item bank is new and still sparse, it's hard to find enough questions that work for the exams.

"We don't have a lot of examples," Greene said.

Community concerns

Debbie Conrad has twin 16-year-old juniors who attend Manatee High School. One of them took the Algebra II end-of-semester exam last week and complained that the test included questions on concepts not yet covered in the course.

"It's quite alarming," she said.

Conrad took her concerns over the exam, and other issues she's heard about the various tests, to the school board on Jan. 13, because she didn't think the board was aware of the issues. For Conrad, the key to fixing the issue is communication. As a parent, she didn't know the district was changing any of the tests.

"Clear communication to parents is essential and this district lacks that," Conrad said.

Other concerns were passed along to the school board by Christine Sket, who has children at Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication.

Sket said the district should consider surveying parents and students for feedback and to publish that information.

"Transparency is key if we are ever going to solve the problems that are affecting public education and education in our district," Sket wrote.

In Sarasota, Cantalupo said teachers continually gave officials feedback during the process, but never saw the tests before they were administered. Cantalupo said she didn't receive a single phone call from a concerned parent.

Board member Charlie Kennedy, who most recently worked as a teacher at Manatee High School, said his phone and email have been busy with concerns since testing began in the district after the break. Kennedy apologized for the confusion and stress the tests have caused, and said the state is partially to blame.

"These testing mandates come from our state legislators in Tallahassee and hopefully, during this upcoming legislative session, we'll get some relief from over-testing. However, our school district must not pass the blame and we must take ownership for the tests that we created and administered to our students last week," Kennedy said.

Moving forward

Last week, the district staff was working on rescoring the tests by removing some of the most problematic questions and using a "T-score" system, which is similar to grading tests on a curve. If the highest raw score was a 75, then the 75 become the benchmark the rest of the students are scored against.

"This is a work in progress and we will find answers to what went wrong and find solutions for the future," Kennedy said.

Greene said the district is working to make sure the exams didn't penalize students who were otherwise doing well in the class. She said they've done everything they can to ensure that the tests won't have a negative impact on the students.

"We've just got to do what's best for our students," she said.

In Sarasota, Cantalupo said, the raw scores were returned to teachers who were left to decide how much the tests would factor into final grades.

The next significant round of testing will come in March, where students will take tests tied to the Florida Standards, the state's adopted version of the Common Core. The Florida Standards tests are being developed by American Institutes for Research. Those tests, which are replacing the FCAT 2.0 tests, begin in early March and continue through April.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.