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Psst: Some test questions don't count

To obtain FCAT results faster, the more challenging, extended answers will not figure in schools' grades.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


A quick tip for Florida public school students taking the FCAT test: The multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble questions count toward your school's A-through-F grade.

The other questions don't.

This year for the first time, the extended-answer items that set the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test apart from run-of-the-mill tests won't count toward school grades. Nor will they count toward a student's individual score.

Evidently, this is the price the state must pay to get test results back sooner. The compromise gives educators some of what they want, but is still making many of them unhappy -- those who know about it.

"There's no justification for this, other than speed," said Judith Westfall, associate superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction for Pinellas County schools. "There's no educational reason for it. It's disappointing."

New Education Commissioner Charlie Crist said he hopes this is a one-year compromise, and that the extended-answer items will be used in accountability in the future.

"I certainly am hopeful that next year we could get all of the results back in time," Crist said. "Or we maybe ought to look at another (test scoring) company."

Test results were late last year, coming well after the contractual deadline and after school let out. The state was under pressure to get results on time this year. So then-Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and testing officials agreed on some changes.

The test scoring company, NCS Pearson (formerly National Computer Systems), agreed to give the test later -- a week or two later, depending on the section of the test. That gives teachers more time for instruction before the big test.

It also agreed to get the multiple-choice results for the math and reading tests back before the end of the school year.

That is a big plus for the state. Last year the results, due June 2, were more than two weeks late. This year, results are expected by May 11. That early return date, along with the late test administration date, means NCS faces a very tight time frame.

The writing test also is expected back by May 11, even though it amounts to an extended essay, not a multiple-choice item.

In one of the most important changes for parents, the testing company also promised to send samples of the extended-answer items back to parents. For the first time, parents can expect to get a sample or two of their child's math answers (perhaps a graph they created) and a short essay from the reading test.

"Between the later testing and the earlier reporting, it is going to take us even more people than last year" to score the tests, said Gary Mainor, president of the assessment and testing division for NCS Pearson.

In return, the state made some compromises.

Not all the test results will come back early.

The first batch will include the multiple-choice reading and math questions that are easiest and quickest to score. The essay writing test will be included in the first batch, too. The other, more time-consuming items will be returned later.

The state also will change the way test results are used. The A-through-F school performance grades will be based on only the first batch of multiple-choice questions. The lengthier answers in the second batch will not figure in accountability.

With that give-and-take, NCS and the state will continue their three-year $69-million contract, now in its second year. NCS paid a $4-million fine for the delays last year.

After all the talk of contracts, schedules and scoring, what this all means to educators is that the distinguishing characteristic of the FCAT -- the questions that demand students show what they know -- will play no part in school accountability.

"We're losing a big part of what this test was supposed to be about," said Cathy Kelly, director of governmental relations for the Florida Education Association. "It looks like all these changes are for administrative convenience, for accommodating the testing company, and for grading schools."

This test, which cost $26-million to create, was never meant to be just a fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-guess assessment. It was introduced as a rigorous test that pushes students to show what they have learned.

The FCAT includes a mix of multiple-choice questions and what are called "performance items" -- questions where students must answer by writing a short essay or constructing a chart or diagram. Those extended-answer items are more difficult and more time-consuming to score because they can't be done with a scanning machine.

The test still contains some of those performance items. But there are fewer (six reading items and four math items this year, as opposed to eight and six respectively last year), and now they play no role in accountability.

State education officials insist the reduced role of performance items will not make the test easier. But many educators fear it will do exactly that.

"It's those performance items that really stretched the students," said Sandra Ramos, assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum forPasco County schools. "The performance items are difficult; the kids have to apply the skills you use in a real-life situation. I don't think we want to de-emphasize that."

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