Student testing eyed
Florida’s high stakes FCAT exam, which has stressed out students for years, is undergoing an overhaul.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has been testing student academic performance since 1998 in the core areas of reading, mathematics, writing, and most recently, science. Testing begins in elementary school and, for the last decade, students have been required to pass the exams in the 10th grade — grade 11 for FCAT Science — to graduate high school.
These bulky tests, which cover multiple years of content, have been the most important factor in determining how students are performing.
Or at least until now.
New legislation and shifts in educational philosophy statewide are changing the way students are going to be assessed.
Florida Senate Bill 4, which passed in the 2010 legislative session, phases out parts of the FCAT and fills those holes with end-of-course exams. Instead of taking the cumulative FCAT exam with multiple years of science or math, students will instead pass specific courses like biology or algebra, and take an end-of-course exam tailored to that material alone.
Dr. Richard Itzen, director of Accountability, Research and Continuous Improvement for the School District of Lee County, said end-of-course exams will be administered for algebra I, geometry, biology and U.S. history. There is discussion around end-of-course exams in algebra II, chemistry and maybe even physics.
The algebra I exam was field tested this year, he said, and the exams in biology and geometry next year. Results of how students performed on these field tests aren’t currently available.
Officials also will start tracking how the use of end-of-course and FCAT exams change the way academic achievement is assessed, as these new exams are slowly implemented over the next four years. Of course, every change has both positive and negative sides, but Itzen said end-of-course exams could be a better fit for some students.
“It is more specific to the actual classes they are taking, with a comprehensive math test you might be in geometry this year but your FCAT has algebra, geometry and other things, so it will make a better match between a class a student is taking and a test,” said Itzen.
Cape Coral High School math teacher Jim Propert said these exams are similar to what other states, such as New York, have in their school system. New York’s Regents Examinations are end-of-course exams that need to be passed by students for practically every subject to earn a diploma. But the changes in Florida aren’t going that far.
Freshman and sophomores will continue taking the FCAT reading exam, and students in grades 3-8 will continue with FCAT reading and mathematics exams, said Itzen.
“The positives are you can really tell if the students will know what particular course, because the test is specifically designed for that course,” said Propert. “The downside is there are a lot more tests.”
Many feel that students are already inundated with standardized tests like the FCAT, SAT, ACT and a number of other assessments given in different grade levels. On the other hand, the end-of-course exams will act more as a final exam which students are already required to pass.
“They will become a final exam of the class which the student will have to take anyway,” said Propert. “It is geared towards that particular class, with that respect, there is no real surprise.”
Remaining FCAT exams have also undergone a upgrade to FCAT 2.0. Itzen said new standards in reading (passed in 2007) and in math (passed in 2008) are being incorporated into the exam, and the state is now focusing on teaching concepts more in-depth. The new and improved FCAT will be administered for the first time in 2012.
“The basic change (for math) is that instead of covering a large number of topics, superficially, they reduced the number of math topics to cover more in-depth,” he said.
Overall, all of the changes to the FCAT and testing boil down to more graduation requirements for students, said Itzen. This means that students of the future will graduate under more academically challenging standards. Instead of only needing to take biology to graduate, for example, some students may need to take classes as advanced as physics.
Scores from the 2010 FCAT exams show that Lee County students are struggling in some areas. How end-of-course exams will affect how these students are measured has yet to be seen.
Out of 4,995 Lee County students who took the science exam in grade 11 this spring, 33 percent scored a 3 or above. Students who score a 3 or above on an FCAT subject exam are considered on grade level or passing. Sixty-nine percent of 5,301 local students scored a 3 or above on the FCAT mathematics exam.
And 38 percent of the 5,335 Lee County students who took the FCAT reading exam in tenth grade scored a 3 or above.
From 2001 to 2010, the percent of Lee County students who scored a 3 or above on the FCAT Reading test went from 37 to 39 percent — it dropped to 32 percent in 2005. Gains in mathematics, on the other hand, are more dramatic. In the same nine year period, the percent of students scoring 3 or above on the FCAT Mathematics increased from 59 to 73 percent.
Local students began taking the FCAT science exam in 2006. From 2006 to 2010, the percent of students scoring a 3 or above increased from 35 to 38 percent.
As of 2010, there was no FCAT social studies exam.
Using end-of-course exams may alleviate the “high stakes” nature of the FCAT, but Propert said it won’t take away the same pressure students feel.
“You will still have the same pressure because you need it for graduation,” he said. “In a lot of ways it makes more sense than the FCAT, because it’s a natural progression.”