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FCAT may face rival
State officials will study New York's method for testing high school students.
By RON MATUS and STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writers
Published October 6, 2007
Top education leaders are studying a potentially big shift for Florida high schools that could mean less reliance on the unpopular Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test but more reliance on other standardized tests.
The buzz, quietly building for more than a year, centers on something called end-of-course exams.
The tests are akin to the final exams high school students have been taking for decades, but they're standardized so students taking the same course in different places would still face the same questions.
In the strongest sign yet that Florida is seriously considering such a system, a contingent of high-ranking Florida officials is flying to New York next month to take a close look at the Regents exams, a highly regarded series of tests that students in that state must pass to graduate.
Their interest dovetails with a budding national movement toward end-of-course exams, which supporters see as a finer measuring tool than tests like the FCAT and one more relevant to the students taking them.
It also merges with a widespread belief among many education observers, including supporters of former Gov. Jeb Bush's accountability system, that while Florida is making gains in early grades, its slumping high schools are in need of more creative solutions.
"We've done very well with standards and accountability on the K-5 piece ... but we're seeing dropoff in high school and that's the last piece," said George LeMieux, chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist. "And New York, with its Regents exam system, seems to do a very nice job on the high school piece."
Crist promised on the campaign trail last year to tweak the FCAT-heavy system installed by his predecessor but did not offer many concrete details. The New York trip, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 14, is the most tangible evidence to date that he and Florida's top education policymakers are searching for answers to a post-FCAT Florida.
Among those slated to go: Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who chairs the House Education Council, and two Board of Education members, Roberto Martinez of Miami and Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, leader of the Senate education committee, is expected to go.
And in a sign that end-of-course exams could garner bipartisan support - a rarity in the Bush era - Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, is also signed up. Gelber, the House minority leader and a vocal critic of Bush's education policies, suggested to the Board of Education in August that Florida adopt New York's model.
"I don't want to get rid of accountability. I just think we need more sensible accountability," said Gelber, a close friend of Martinez.
Lawmakers and education officials have been talking about end-of-course exams since at least early 2006.
The exams are a big part of controversial plans to tie teacher bonuses to student test scores. In fact, the lack of such exams in many districts has been one of many reasons teachers are rejecting the bonus plan.
They're also seen by some education experts as a key plank for high school reform.
Under Bush, Florida saw reading and math scores rise dramatically in the early grades. But so far, those gains have not been sustained as students move into middle and high school. They also have not put much of a dent in the state's graduation rate, which, at somewhere between 60 and 70 percent, has long been one of the worst in the country.
To complicate matters, some districts, led by Hillsborough, are questioning whether the FCAT is accurately gauging how well their high school students are doing. As the St. Petersburg Times first reported last spring, some students who flunk the 10th grade FCAT in reading are nonetheless scoring at far above the national average on other tests.
Meanwhile, Florida's intense focus on reading and math has led to persistent complaints about narrowing curriculum.
"Enhancing the accountability system in high school is something we have to look at," said Martinez, the state board member. But he stopped short of saying whether end-of-course exams might be part of the solution.
"It's way too early for me to draw conclusions," he said. "I'm just starting to look at it."
If Florida did move in that direction, though, it would not be alone.
In recent years, many states have put more stock into end-of-course exams, said Joan Lord, vice president for education policy at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. In June, for example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that replaces that state's comprehensive exam in high school with end-of-course exams in math, English, science and social studies.
Among other benefits, some observers see end-of-course exams as a better way to align state standards in say, math or history, with what actually gets taught in the classroom - and from there, driving improvements.
Students may put more stock in them, too, said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "It is tied in with their coursework for the year or the semester," she said. "It's a little more concrete, a little more relevant to their lives at the moment."
But there may be downsides and tradeoffs, too.
Replacing one high-stakes, standardized test with many will mean more test prep, more pressure to limit instruction and "more prospective hurdles to trip kids up," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
Even if end-of-course exams gain momentum in Florida, it's far too early to tell whether they would replace the FCAT, or be used alongside it, or come with a different set of consequences.
Some states use one type of test or the other. Some use both.
Gaetz, the Senate committee leader, prefers the latter. "We need both for different reasons," he said.
But he also said end-of-course exams wouldn't succeed in Florida unless they were developed carefully, with flexibility built into the system and teachers taking the lead in building it.
"This can't be a top down mandate from a hermetically sealed Department of Education," he said. If it is, "that will defeat the purpose ... and lead to a revolution."
The Regents exams in New York are primarily designed by teachers.
Since 1999, New York students have had to pass Regents exams in five areas to graduate: math, English, biology, U.S. history and global history-geography. To earn an advanced diploma, they must pass three additional exams.
In Florida, students must pass a wide range of classes to secure a diploma. They must also pass the 10th grade FCAT in reading and math.