Today’s guest post is by Eileen Castle, a former principal in Polk County, Florida.
Spring is a time to celebrate warmer weather, budding flowers and things looking a little brighter. But some might argue that spring also has a few drawbacks, like pollen or testing.
As a former classroom teacher and elementary school principal in Polk County, Fla., the anxiety we hear so much about surrounding testing is disheartening. In some cases, the frustrations might be warranted, but there has to be a healthy balance—I know it exists because I remember it.
I was the principal of a high poverty, diverse elementary school when Florida first implemented the FCAT, the predecessor of Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). Every year, we identified students making progress and those needing extra help. We met yearly to compare teachers’ learning gains data, strategize and refine instructional practices. We used the data testing provided to help make staffing and instructional decisions—because teacher effectiveness directly impacts student learning. And as a result, we turned our D-rated school into an A-rated school.
We measured because we cared, and I know there are principals, teachers and parents who feel the same way—those who know the value of checking up on whether our students are learning and wouldn’t dream of telling a child to “just skip the test.” But that’s not the popular thing to say right now. Can we at least agree we shouldn’t stress our kids out but simply ask them to do their best? The information we gather from tests helped us educators to better prepare students for their future.
While testing isn’t always perfect—and we certainly should work toward continued improvements so results are as helpful as possible for students, teachers and parents—I’d like to help clear the air when it comes to a few things.
First, testing helps identify struggling schools. In Florida, failing schools receive increased support and progress incentives that result in receiving more per-pupil funding than passing schools. Funds are directed at turning schools around, and schools that improve their school grade or maintain an A grade earn a yearly bonus from the state of $100 per enrolled student. An F-graded school improving to a D-graded earns this reward, just like an A school that maintains its A.
In Florida, a majority of a teacher’s evaluation is based on in-house observations and other professional practices designed by the school district. Only one-third of a teacher’s evaluation is impacted by student test performance. Additionally, teachers are evaluated on how well students progress academically each year, not whether they test on grade level. Teachers of struggling students who show a year’s worth of learning gains in reading and/or math for every year in school are rewarded, not penalized, even if their students aren’t testing on grade level. For the 2014-2015 school year, 98.4 percent of Florida teachers were rated effective or highly effective.
The FSA is not the sole determining factor of whether students advance to the next grade or if they can graduate from high school. In third grade, students who fail FSA reading can still be promoted if they qualify for one of five good-cause exemptions, including passing an alternative test. High school students have retake opportunities to pass the two assessments required for graduation or they can substitute scores from alternative standardized tests like SAT or ACT.
All children deserve our commitment to providing them with keys to success. Parents also deserve accurate information when it comes to testing’s impact on their children. Florida’s increased expectations have resulted in student improvement in everything from national reading scores to graduation rates. These results are not just data points—they represent changed lives.
In Florida, annual testing is off to a good start so far. The best way to support our students and teachers is to hope that things continue to go smoothly this spring, and to remind students that testing time is just another day at school. It will be just fine.
Eileen Castle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educational consultant, author and Florida Southern College adjunct faculty member. She is a former principal and district office staff member for Polk County Public Schools.