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The Florida Flip-Flop Undermines Test Credibility

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We are relying on the results of standardized tests for ever more consequential decisions. Students are promoted or held back, teachers are hired or fired, public schools are closed, and soon our schools of education will be rated, ranked and have their funding depend on the scores of the students taught by their graduates. Since the tests have so much riding on them, they are getting greater scrutiny than ever - and their limitations are beginning to show.

In Florida, the State Board of Education acted hastily last month to "lower the bar" on the FCAT, which tests writing proficiency in grades 4, 8 and 10. The Board decided that a score of 3 on a scale of 1 to 6 would be enough to make one "proficient." Before the shift, one needed a score of 4, and only about a third of the students would have passed. With the lowered target, about 80% will be considered proficient.

The Board acted out of fear of a public backlash, but in doing so they revealed the subjective and political nature of these decisions.

An NPR interview with former Pearson test-scorer Todd Farley reinforces this point. Mr. Farley takes us inside the sausage factory, where we learn that far from being a rigorous, controlled environment, test scoring is a jumbled mess. He explains,

There were innumerable instances when we were scoring, half way through the project you would go, we have a tremendous number of lower half scores and not enough upper half. So I would stand in front of a group and I would go, 'hey all that stuff I've been telling you for two weeks, lets just forget that and let's give more upper half scores.' And all the scorers would moan and complain and I would think it was a scam and they would think it was a scam and then we would do it. Because every one of us was in there to get paid.

On a bigger scale, this is what has been done in Florida. Too many students were about to fail, so the bar was lowered. There must be, in the minds of our policymakers and test designers, a clear target, a desired number of failures. This number can be manipulated for political reasons. So our public schools can labor until doomsday, and so long as there are those in charge who want us to fail, we will not succeed.

What do you think? Does the Florida flip-flop undermine the validity of standardized tests?

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