Will ending standardized tests improve teaching, learning?

By Barbara Gutierrez

Will ending standardized tests improve teaching, learning?

By Barbara Gutierrez
University of Miami education experts weigh in on the proposal by Gov. Ron DeSantis and its possible effect on Florida students.

In a surprising move, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced earlier this month a legislative proposal that would do away with the state’s standards-based end-of-year Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) to create a new “progress-monitoring” model and assessment system for English, language arts, and mathematics.

In doing so, Florida would be the first state to implement progress monitoring for students at three points each year and end annual testing at the conclusion of the school year. The Florida legislature has to approve the proposal. 

“I have been hoping that we will soon be seeing the end of annual high stakes testing as a way to assess and ensure learning standards are met in the classroom and to address inequities in K-12 education,” said Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.

“Educational disparities persist, learning was compromised as teachers were pressured to teach to the test, and creativity and critical thinking—for both teachers and students—was severely curtailed,’’ she added. “Replacing the FSA system with progressive monitoring should be accompanied by changes to the current teacher accountability process and school grading system.”

The controversial FSA, which was implemented in 2015, requires students to take an end-of-the-year test in English (reading and writing) and math to measure students’ proficiency in those subjects. The tests are based on Florida Department of Education’s learning standards, which are similar to the college and career standards (i.e., Common Core Standards) found in other states. Such college and career standards were created to promote U.S. students’ ability to compete with high school graduates from around the globe for jobs in the 21st century.   

But the test comes with some high-level stakes: Third grade students who do not pass the test can be held back until they pass, and high school students who fall below a certain score can be denied a diploma.

“There is also a teaching accountability portion that is linked to the test,” said Mary Avalos, research professor in teaching and learning at the School of Education and Human Development. “If the teacher’s students are not deemed proficient per the test results, this will be reflected in the teacher’s evaluation and the teacher could get laid off.”   

Many parents and educators have criticized the tests and the accountability measures because it forced teachers to spend their classroom hours “teaching to the test.”

“Teachers have pacing guides which tell them what content they have to teach on any given day,” said Avalos. “The pacing guides trump the learning needs of individual students,” as teachers do not have the autonomy needed to reteach a concept when students are not understanding.

If an instructor realized that many students in the class needed more time to master a mathematical concept, they could not spend more time on it, said Avalos.

“Teachers do not have the autonomy to make those types of decisions,” Avalos pointed out. “It really is the de-professionalization of teachers. You have set ways to teach, and you must follow the pacing guide.”

Avalos said that she believes that the governor’s proposal of a new set of shorter tests and implementing progress monitoring of students sounds good. But she noted that the success of the new plan depends on its implementation.

The new Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (FAST) will require that three shorter tests be administered to students: once in the fall, once in winter, and once in spring.

DeSantis’ statement also said that this would reduce testing time an average of 75 percent, “increasing time for teaching and providing more timely, usable feedback to help students reach their unique goals.”

“Florida’s education focus should be students’ growth and how we restore the conversation between parents and teachers in support of students’ growth,” said DeSantis.

But, according to Avalos, additional changes are needed. She said that although there are changes to the test, the accountability stakes would remain the same, likely retaining the pacing guides and emphasis on passing tests over teaching that is responsive to the learning needs of students.

“Progress monitoring according to the state may not be helpful if teachers are required to follow a pacing guide,” she said. “If the pacing guide remains and teachers do not have the authority to decide what they need to teach, then what good is it?”   

Both Avalos and Kohn-Wood agree that teachers must be the ultimate judges of how their students are learning. They also indicated that each student learns in a different way, according to their individual needs and circumstances.  

“What is important now is that we show up for students,” said Kohn-Wood.

“It is critical that we invest the time and the money to pay attention to the science regarding how to assess children’s educational experiences in ways that optimize learning opportunities, address diversity and inclusion, incorporate the whole child, account for barriers related to social and emotional issues and differences in abilities, and eliminate biases related to race, ethnicity, and language.”