New study finds Florida's high-stakes school tests valid

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's new high-stakes test , which came under fire after a chaotic rollout this past spring, is valid according to a new outside study released Tuesday.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart called the results "welcome news" and said the study showed the test "accurately measures Florida student's mastery of the standards" in math and reading.

"Now all Floridians can share my confidence in the assessment," Stewart said during a conference call with reporters.

But the findings may actually do little to stem the ongoing debate over Florida's testing system and standards. Critics were already pointing to "warning signs" mentioned in the report and said the results should throw into question how state education officials plan to use the test results.

State legislators called for an in-depth study of the test known as the Florida Standards Assessment, or FSA, after districts were forced to shut down testing days as students struggled with logging on and some were unable to complete a test in one sitting. The test site was also subjected to a cyber-attack that is still under investigation by the state. Out of the 3.2 million tests given, about 2.4 million were administered online.

Authors of the study concluded that the test itself was consistent with testing standards and the questions were error-free and unbiased. Stewart said with the results now in hand, state education officials will use the test scores to grade schools and use as a key part of the annual evaluation of teachers. It means that parents will eventually be given the test scores as well.

But some legislators were a bit more cautious about the results.

The study, for example, said there were no problems with tests taken with paper and pencil by third and fourth graders but the scores of students who took the test online "will be suspect." Authors estimated that up to 5 percent of the students who took a computerized test were directly impacted by the problems.

"Issues were encountered on just about every aspect of the computer-based test administrations, from the initial training and preparation to the delivery of the tests themselves," states the report prepared by Alpine Testing Solutions and edCount LLC.

State Sen. Bill Montford, who works with the association that represents school superintendents, said superintendents reached a different conclusion from the report. He also pointed out that the study showed some of the questions were not aligned to state standards taught by teachers.

"I don't believe that the students of Florida should be subject to a high-stakes exam that is slightly different than the standards," Montford said. "It can make the difference between a student passing and not passing."

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman with the Florida Education Association, said the findings should prompt state officials to slow down their decision to use the spring test results.

"They do seem to be going full speed ahead with their testing mania," Pudlow said. "I think they are driving through a couple of warning signs."

Stewart said that while she was concerned that some students had their testing "disrupted" she said they were working with the testing vendor to "minimize" any problems in the spring of 2016.

Florida has had a high-stakes testing in place for all grades from third through 10th grade as part of former Gov. Jeb Bush's education overhaul. But this past year the state replaced the old test known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment with the new one. The state signed a six-year $220 million contract with American Institutes for Research for the test.

Some school districts and elected officials have suggested ending the using of the new test and instead using other national tests such as the SAT in its place. But State Sen. John Legg, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he would be reluctant to switch to another test right away.

"I don't want teachers go through three separate assessments in three separate years," said Legg. "That is a recipe for disaster."

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