Editorials

Cutback on school tests a good idea

Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade County prepare for the state assessments. Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. At the Manatee County School Board workshop on Tuesday, board chairman Charlie Kennedy is going to propose eliminating district-mandated tests.
Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade County prepare for the state assessments. Across Florida, parents are pushing back on standardized tests. At the Manatee County School Board workshop on Tuesday, board chairman Charlie Kennedy is going to propose eliminating district-mandated tests.

Most parents and most teachers, we’d venture, advocate more teaching and learning in schools, and less testing and stress put upon students. “Teaching to the test” robs children of valuable opportunities to expand their knowledge, an oft-repeated refrain across the state for years now. Manatee County School Board Chairman Charlie Kennedy, once a history teacher at Manatee High, has ignited the issue anew by proposing a moratorium on all non-state-mandated testing in the district.

High-stakes standardized tests required by the state are the primary point of contention, but now district-mandated assessments pack the school year. Legislators once appeared loathe to chip away at the very foundation of education reform that began under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. But lawmakers finally grasped the sound and fury of parents and educators and tinkered around the edges, reducing state testing requirements.

Two years ago, when students first began taking Florida Standards Assessments, the state also required districts to administer end-of-course tests in every class. This forced the Manatee County School District to create more than 800 new exams. The district and school board joined a coalition to seek relief from the state. A few months later the Legislature relented — somewhat. The legislation, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in April 2015, eliminated the 11th-grade English language arts assessment, removed mandates for local end-of-course tests in subjects not assessed statewide and waived the required administration of the Post Education Readiness Test in high school. Still, Florida’s testing mandates remain grueling.

Kennedy is specifically seeking to eliminate benchmark assessments given in the fall and spring in core subjects. His proposal has some legislative support. A bill filed this month seeks to limit the time frame for the administration of some tests with the goal of prodding districts to reduce the number of exams. Like two years ago, this measure indicates lawmakers are responding to the continuing opposition to testing — if only in a small way.

A better way to spend classroom time and improve test scores is let teachers teach and free up time for teaching and learning.

Charlie Kennedy, school board chairman

At a February board workshop, administrators, led by Superintendent Diana Greene, vigorously defended the benchmark assessments for providing valuable information on which standards students need to review. Here’s the rub: Those district tests are designed to simulate the state’s Florida Standards Assessments, administered at the end of the school year. That sounds like teaching to the FSA test via a couple of practice rounds ahead of the state-mandated exam.

Kennedy found inspiration for his proposal from Clay and Marion counties. The Clay County School District went too far, banning district tests this year. Marion County got rid of dozens of elementary school tests.

He told Herald education reporter Ryan McKinnon: “A better way to spend classroom time and improve test scores is let teachers teach and free up time for teaching and learning. Let them do the content and the standards. That will go a lot farther toward improving test scores.”

But he only wants the district to drop the requirement for benchmark tests and give teachers the option to administer the exams should they find them useful. Kennedy also claims teachers generally considered the tests useless — a point administrators adamantly disputed.

To the district’s credit, administrators eliminated the third-quarter benchmark test a few years ago, but students still take the first- and second-quarter exams. Overall, the amount of testing of the district’s K-12 students adds up to between 270 minutes to 1,200 minutes a year, the district assessment calendar indicates. (High school seniors are exempt from district and state exams.) The higher figure represents 20 hours. The majority of that time is consumed with district tests.

The board is scheduled to resume the debate at its next workshop, set for March 1.

The board is scheduled to resume the debate at its next workshop, set for March 1. Kennedy has at least two tentative allies on the board with the other two not responding to the Herald’s interview requests.

The stress on teachers and students over test preparation and exam days diminishes the enthusiasm that an education should bring. This Editorial Board continues to support a reduction in testing, and hopes Kennedy can convince a majority on the board that his proposal warrants approval, at the least as an experiment.

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