This week, PBS is launching a new documentary series “180 Days.”
One of the films focuses on Hartsville, South Carolina, a rural and poor district which has managed to become one of the highest rating school districts according to South Carolina’s ranking.
Tampa public media station WUSF hosted a town hall meeting at Artz 4 Life Academy in Clearwater last week to screen a portion of the movie and to discuss education issues. Artz 4 Life is an after-school arts and life coaching program.
Big on the mind of those who attended was Florida’s new test, the Florida Standards Assessments. The test is linked to Florida’s new Common Core-based math and language arts standards, which outline what students should know by the end of each grade.
But parents were worried the new test is expected to be tougher, and must be taken on a computer.
“We went from FCAT to FSA and that’s worse than what we were already at,” said mom of three Lisa Hewitt. “We set our students up to fail…If they weren’t doing so well in FCAT why would we develop another test that’s worse?
Despite pleas from superintendents, parents and others, a House committee does not want to wait a year before issuing school grades based on Florida’s new test results. While the state will issue school grades this year, those grades will have no consequences.
Joy Frank, of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said pausing school grades for a year would “recalibrate the system.”
“This is not been an easy transition,” Frank said. “The teachers have been working very hard and diligently to implement these standards and administer this test with fidelity. The students have been prepared and ready to take the assessment, and many of them last week could not get on the system. I think it behooves us to support the teachers and the students.”
Representatives from the Broward, Palm Beach, Pasco and Polk school districts also endorsed the proposed amendment.
But Republicans on the panel disagreed.
“The pressure helps our schools to continue to strive to do better,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.
Sen. Don Gaetz has filed an amendment which would force school districts to share local construction money with charter schools.
School districts would have to share local school construction and maintenance money with charter schools, according to an amendment filed by an influential state senator.
Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Senate president, filed the amendment Tuesday. The amendment would require half of the money raised by an optional local property tax to be split between charter and traditional schools on a per-student basis.
Studies have found publicly-funded, but privately-run charter schools typically receive less money per student than traditional public schools. A good piece of the difference in Florida is the local construction money — which few school districts share with charter schools.
Earmarking a source of construction funding has been a top priority of charter schools for years. Charter schools argue their parents are taxpayers too, so public money should pay for charter school construction and maintenance.
A state senator says Florida should restrict the number of four-year degree programs that community colleges offer. The programs are a growing — and less expensive — alternative to degrees from Florida universities. But Sen. Joe Negron says community colleges should focus on two-year degrees and workforce training.
Negron said he was concerned that state colleges, also known as community colleges, were forgetting their core mission: to give out associate degrees and provide work-force training.
“We have a great community-college system,” he said. “My concern is what started as a small part of their portfolio has grown dramatically and, left unchecked, some of these colleges view themselves as competing in the four-year space with universities.”
Negron said he favors giving universities a stronger say during the process if they want to oppose community colleges’ proposed new four-year degrees. He also is considering a cap on the number of students or degrees given.
A cyber attack may be to blame for students being unable to sign in to a new online state writing test last Thursday. The Florida Department of Education says it reported a denial of service attack to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The cyber attack is unrelated to problems from earlier in the week.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said her department will work with law enforcement “to ensure they identify the bad actors and hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
High-stakes testing continues despite persistent technical problems
Florida repeatedly warned about an untested test for students
That wasn’t the only problem Florida students had. Earlier in the week, thousands of schoolchildren had trouble accessing the testing platform and were booted off the system in the middle of their exams.
The education department on Monday conceded that those technical difficulties were “unrelated to the cyber attack.” Instead, they have been blamed on an update run by provider AIR the day before testing began.
Lawmakers asked Education Commissioner Pam Stewart that question in November.
“Are we actually testing their writing,” Stewart said, “or are we then testing their computer skills? I would suggest to you the answer to that really is we need to be doing both.”
Typing was a big enough question about the FSA that the Florida Department of Education decided to let students through 7th grade take a paper and pencil version of the writing test.
But should it be? Florida has used online exams for several years. The state is requiring schools deliver half of classroom instruction digitally, starting this fall. And kids can be pretty adept with computers, tablets and other devices.
Using results from a 2012 assessment given to about a half-million 15-year-olds around the world, a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that even though more boys struggled to show basic proficiency in reading, math and science than did girls, boys still ultimately outperformed girls in math. The gap was widest at the top, with high-achieving boys scoring significantly higher than the top girls.
Across OECD countries, boys scored an average of 11 points higher than girls on a test where the average score was 494, and had a 20-point advantage among the top 10% of students of both sexes.
There’s a bi-partisan push to make it easier for students to apply for federal financial aid. But experts say trimming questions could cause colleges to choose other financial aid applications — and those may not be free.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says test-maker American Institutes for Research seems to have corrected the problems which caused some school districts to shut down testing this week. Stewart says districts are on pace to finish testing during the two-week window.
And tests last night showed it could handle 250,000 students testing at the same time, she added. That’s the maximum number that will test simultaneously when the state starts administering the FSA math and reading exams in the next month. Many of those are also computer based, and more students will take those exams online that need to take writing via computer.
Stewart said the state’s testing contractor, American Institutes for Research, or AIR, has taken “full responsibility” for the problems this week. The firm has a three-year, $107-million contract with the state to provide statewide exams, with an option for three more years of renewals.