High Stakes Testing in America

Get a bird's eye view of what high stakes testing is really like.

Posted May 26, 2015

“Thank God it’s over.” That’s what my friend in Florida says. He’s a high school educator in Broward County Public Schools—the sixth largest public school district in the nation. His school just finished seven weeks of testing. “We started the second week of March and gave our final test on May 22nd,” he told me. The fattening-the-pig-by-weighing-it, over-the-top testing, happened almost every day and impacted every student in his school. Everyone’s overwrought with this mess, most likely including the guy who started it, Jeb Bush.

Under Teaching, Over Testing

The last seven weeks of high school testing included the following tests:

  • F-CAT Reading Retakes (Students in grades eleven and twelve are still under the old Florida Comprehensive Reading Test.)
  • FSA (Florida Standards Assessment which is a Common Core State Standards test with another name.)
  • FSA Writing
  • FSA Language Arts
  • FSA End of Course (EOC) Geometry Exam
  • FSA EOC Algebra I Exam
  • FSA EOC Algebra II Exam
  • End of Course Biology (Pearson Education)
  • End of Course American History (Pearson Education)

During this same period a number of the College Board national tests for Advanced Placement were administered in 18 subjects!

And let’s not forget PERT for eleventh and twelfth graders—the Post Education Readiness Test for determining which students test out of remedial level college classes.

Think this listing sounds over-the-top? You don’t yet have the full picture. Some students are taking the algebra and reading tests over and over again—as many as five or more times. They want to graduate.

Overloaded, Overreaching

“There are more tests to take than time to do it,” my high school educator friend told me.  “This year we closed the school down for six days just for testing—all high school classes were canceled. Six full school days with no instruction! ”

The Florida State Legislature seems fully committed to stopping what the Tea Party faction calls “federal government overreach” by under-reaching. They came to the rescue with legislation dictating that no student can spend more than 5% of the student’s time in school testing. “That’s a whole month—up to 18 half-days of school,” my friend said shaking his head. (He’s planning for an early retirement.) I was gobsmacked. Are fat cats in Florida bent on fattening the pig by weighing it or fattening somebody’s pockets?

Overseeing, Overspending

Sixteen years after Jeb Bush promoted federal oversight and introduced the idea of high stakes testing to Congress, thanks to somebody, Florida taxpayers are paying $225 million to the American Institutes for Research (AIR) plus some more to its competitor, Pearson Education, to oversee Florida testing. Pearson, a British multinational conglomerate with 1.5 billion dollars in net earnings in 2011 along with organizations such as AIR are trying to gobble up the $500 billion a year US K-12 education market. A big chunk of the market is for testing. [1] I wonder how much Florida spent on testing when Jeb was governor in 1999. It wasn’t $225 million for AIR plus additional spending for Pearson Education.

Overall Meltdown

Florida’s high stakes testing hasn’t gone smoothly this year. Some folks wondered about the validity of the Florida test which AIR validated in Utah—a state not often associated with Florida’s demographics. The rough roll out of the state writing test in March—according to AIR—was victim to a “cyber-attack.” In April, hundreds of thousands of jittery students across the state sat down in front of computers for the new, dreaded, computer-based Florida Standards Assessments in language arts and math. An overloaded server shut down—due to an AIR “tweak.” All tests had to be rescheduled. [2]

Not only were student promotions and graduations hinging upon these tests but teachers taught all year thinking the tests would be part of teacher evaluations which impacts salary. A lot of effort was invested in these high stakes tests. Psychologists tell us to praise effort and learning rather than over-praising performance. [3] Yet in mid-May the Florida Department of Education decided that the AIR math tests were invalid.  After thousands of teachers and parents “praised effort” for high stakes testing, students were told the tests didn’t count. I wonder about the psychological costs exacted upon both students and teachers.

In May, both Broward County Schools and Miami-Dade County Schools (fourth largest in the nation) announced that they will not use the results of AIR’s new Florida Standards Assessment to hold students back. [4] At all levels anyone involved in the end of year testing is dropping jaws in disbelief.

Now money is being spent for an independent review of the state tests but the validation review will not be available until next school year. Meanwhile, many third graders may spend the summer wondering if they passed. As a former third grade teacher, I am worried about them. I know how sensitive third graders are. According to one report, some research has shown that avoiding retention “can be as traumatic on students as losing a parent or going blind.” [5] I worry that teachers report that many Florida third-graders cried just before taking the test. I wonder if AIR and Pearson are still getting their money.

The A+ Plan—Is Jeb Bush Overwrought too?

Jeb Bush had good intentions for starting the Florida tests which is the model for high stakes testing in the nation. Don’t get me wrong. I see the benefits of national standards and a sensible end of year test.  But Jeb saw it first.

As I reported in a previous post, sixteen years ago on Sept. 23, 1999 the Honorable Jeb Bush, then Governor of Florida, addressed the House Committee on the Budget in the U. S. House of Representatives in Washington, D. C. His speech was entitled “An A+ Plan for Education.” The first element in the A+ plan was “Assess annual student learning against high standards.” That section outlined a blueprint to combat social promotion:

“First, in order to more accurately assess student learning and to better determine how well Florida's students were achieving the learning benchmarks set forth in the Sunshine State Standards, we're expanding the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test so that all 3rd through tenth graders will take it. . .” [6]

This plan became F-CAT, and in 2002-2003 the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was launched. Students were tested beginning in 3rd grade and schools were assigned a letter grade—A through F—based on F-CAT exam scores.

Today, Florida and Jeb Bush’s model of high stakes testing is in full swing across the nation.

Perhaps someone should take the AIR out of Florida’s overinflated high stakes testing tire. Perhaps someone should oversee Pearson. Perhaps some of this testing money should be spent on spelling books which might help Florida develop readers and writers.

Perhaps we should heed Jeb’s words in the A+ speech: “Too often, there can be political or institutional reluctance to identify ‘failure.’” [7]

But I digress.

Overreach, overspend, oversee, overwhelm? It’s too much to think about. Let’s just be glad it’s over—at least for now. Summer is here—sunshine in the sunshine state.

For a related article read my post: “3rd-Graders’ Angst: Hell Month Is Herehttps://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-speller...

[1] Singer, Alan (2012). “Pearson ‘Education’—Who Are These People?” Huffington Post Education. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/pearson-education-new-york-tes...

[2] McGrory and Solochek, Jeff (2015) “Florida Lawmakers Rip Testing Vendor After Second Round of Glitches,” Miami Herald, April 21, 2015.http://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article19181640.html

[3]Willingham, Daniel (2015) Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Veiga, Christina (2015) “Miami-Dade, Broward Schools Won’t Use Controversial Statewide Test.” Miami Herald, Education, May 19, 2015.

[5] Veiga, Christina (2015) “Miami-Dade, Broward Schools Won’t Use Controversial Statewide Test.” Miami Herald, Education, May 19, 2015. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article21424197.html

[6] Bush, Jeb (1999) Speech to Congress entitled “An A+ Plan for Education.” http://www.icasinc.org/1999/1999l/1999ljeb.html

[7] Bush, Jeb (1999) Speech to Congress entitled “An A+ Plan for Education.” http://www.icasinc.org/1999/1999l/1999ljeb.html

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.