Thursday, Jan 29, 2015

End of course exams in full swing


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end of course assessments and FCAT tests are felt through all levels of the education system — from students expecting to graduate to educators’ security in the field — and all stakeholders work hard year-round to make the grade.

The State Board of Education decided on Dec. 12 that students, teachers, faculty and parents could work harder when it established achievement levels for the biology 1 and geometry end of course assessments — almost a year after establishing achievement levels for FCAT 2.0 Reading and the Algebra 1 end of course assessment.

“Florida was in the top 10 states for graduation requirements, but it makes sense to take an exam to pass based on what you’ve been taught all year,” said Jill Kolasa, assistant principal of Central High School. “The scary part of that is, if a teacher is out for medical or other various reasons, and you have a long-term substitute — there’s so much riding on it now, and that’s why we strive to have highly qualified teachers, so kids get the best instruction and can pass those end of course exams.”

It’s important to the point that students and parents are planning for it, Kolasa said, which is highly fortunate: Parents are an integral part of a school’s success.

“There was a student and parent who decided not to go to a sporting event because she had FCAT the next day, which was a very smart decision,” Kolasa said. “It was a long travel to the game, and the fact that parents are aware of it is a really big help too.”

Assessment requirements for students entering ninth grade, and for middle school students seeking high school credit, doubled between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years, according to Florida Department of Education data, and the 50-60 question end of course assessments weren’t even in the picture until the 2011-12 school year.

In a way it can be thought of as a final exam, said Jen Merschbach, assessment teacher at Central High.

“We just started all these end of course assessments, so our juniors and seniors may have been field testers when they just came out,” Merschbach said. “Last year was the first time for algebra pass or fail, and now this year algebra 1, geometry and biology is pass or fail depending on their grade level.”

While FCAT remains the predominate test for middle schools, the end of course assessment requirements also pertain to middle school students seeking high school credit.

“Algebra 1 is a high school level class, and they can take that in middle school,” said Ray Pinder, principal of Fox Chapel Middle School. “It’s the same course requirements, same grading system for their class grade, and the course is the same, and they can get credit for that when they go to high school.”

The state seems to be phasing in end of course exams, Pinder said, and at the middle school level only a few assessments such as algebra 1, geometry, and a civics course have end of course exams instead of or in addition to the FCAT.

“In the next couple of years there will be more end of course exams and less FCAT-type testing,” Pinder said.

Last year, when Central High School’s current juniors and seniors were field testers, as it were, the end of course exams were worth 30 percent of their course grade, Merschbach said. But the stakes have been significantly raised for incoming freshman beginning this 2012-13 school year: Grade 10 FCAT 2.0 reading and algebra 1, biology 1 and geometry end of course assessments currently are pass/fail.

“They need a good night’s sleep, protein and a good breakfast, which is helpful for them before they take a major test like this,” Merschbach said.

The extended changes in recent years have, fortunately, been made alongside accommodations in time allotted for students to take the tests. Students now have two days instead of one to complete testing.

“It’s more beneficial for the students to have reading and split up between the days, so they have more time,” Merschbach said. “We have a lot of students with learning disabilities, so that’s actually benefitting the kids here.”

Reading scores have improved over the last couple years, Merschbach said, but it’s still too early to tell whether extending test-taking times have improved test scores.

“We’re hoping it’s better, because the kids have had more time between tests,” Kolasa said. “There’s not enough data on end of course exams.”

But Pinder said the new test-taking measures, combined with state requirements for number of computers per student, have complicated FCAT and end of course testing and created something of a backlog situation for students who arrive late on test day.

“We meet state requirements for number of computers, but you have to have a kid sitting there, and you have to rotate, which stretches the days out over a longer period of time,” Pinder said. “A student who misses session one can’t do session two until they take session one.”

That further complicates things, Pinder said, because it’s not like last year when students arrived late in the morning, for example, during session one of math testing, and could take session two later that day, then the next day take session one.

“With the new requirement they can’t take session two until session one, and if they’re late they can’t take it at all that day,” Pinder said. “So it has to be in sequence, so they’ll probably have to test on a makeup day for both sessions.”

The end of course exams will continue through the rest of April, Merschbach said.

“We just really need parents to know that their job is really important, to follow up at home, and we appreciate the work they do all year,” Merschbach said. “It takes all of us for these students to be successful.”

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