Florida is in the midst of implementing new, tougher academic standards to make its students more internationally competitive. To do that, the state needs to replace the well-known FCAT exam with a new set of tests.
As the 2014-15 deadline approaches, though, questions are being raised about whether the new testing system, called PARCC, is the best choice.
On July 17, Florida’s top lawmakers weighed in with a resounding "no."
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz sent a two-page letter to education commissioner Tony Bennett urging him to withdraw from PARCC (the acronym stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and instead craft a "Florida plan" for testing. They listed five key reasons, including cost, technology requirements and time spent testing.
(We can only rate one person on our Truth-O-Meter, so we're rating Weatherford, but the ruling applies to both.)
To that last point, they pointedly wrote, "According to information provided recently through PARCC and earlier by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), the complete PARCC assessments will consume approximately twenty days of testing for elementary, middle and high school students."
That figure -- 20 days of testing -- puzzled some readers of the letter, which the lawmakers circulated widely. Were students going to be tested for a full 20 days?
In fact, the leaders were on the mark — if not a bit conservative — to folks well versed in the language of high-stakes testing.
But the number makes sense only if you understand that schools are given a window to test students. The current FCAT, for example, takes 12 days for schools to administer.
It’s important to understand the broader context of this debate, too: The new testing system is meant to complement the Common Core State Standards, which have become increasingly debated across the country.
Advocates like Bill Gates, Jeb Bush and the Obama administration say the system will create higher expectations for students and provide more rigor to propel them ahead. An odd combination of teacher unions and tea party activists, meanwhile, are pushing for states to abandon the model.
The unions say that teachers and schools are not prepared for the change, while the tea party groups argue against a nationalized curriculum and testing.
Setting that debate aside, it’s important to know that school testing is not typically a one-day thing for students or teachers.
A Florida fourth-grader currently spends about 5 hours 40 minutes over four days taking FCAT exams in reading, math and writing, for instance, according to a state analysis. That same student would sit for 9 hours 20 minutes of PARCC year-end testing, over six to nine days.
PARCC also would have mid-year testing, also with a 20-day window to get them all completed. And, the PARCC estimate does not include what the Florida DOE listed as "a set amount of additional time yet to be determined. ...This may in turn also increase the number of testing days."
The days-long testing windows give schools time to cycle children through the computerized portions of the tests. Many schools do not have enough machines or bandwidth to test all children at the same time.
That gives credence to the leaders’ choice of the word "consume" when writing about what tests do to the school day. Even under FCAT, many teachers have observed that testing season takes over school classrooms and computer labs.
Gaetz and Weatherford are not alone in their concerns.
Oklahoma state superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican who had her state join PARCC as one of her first actions in office, three weeks ago announced she would abandon the tests.
Like Weatherford and Gaetz, Barresi cited increased testing time as one of her key concerns. Oklahoma fourth-graders currently take only two hours of state tests.
"We just felt like that’s a significant leap," department spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton told PolitiFact. "We do want the increased rigor of a PARCC-type exam … but we just want to do a little less of that at this point."
Commissioner Bennett has been evaluating PARCC, along with other testing options for Florida that he could go with. He has said he will take the lawmakers’ concerns into consideration as he makes his recommendation.
In a letter to the state education commissioner, Gaetz and Weatherford said they were concerned that new standards would increase test-taking time for Florida’s students, describing the PARCC standards as "consuming" 20 days for elementary, middle and high school students.
The word "consuming" implies that those days will be taken up completely by testing. That’s not the case for students, who will not be tested continuously for 20 days.
But it’s on the mark for schools, which would have a 20-day window in which to administer tests to different students within the school. In fact, schools generally expect to focus on little else besides testing procedures for that time period. The current FCAT tests work the same way, but that testing window is shorter, at 12 days.
The lawmakers could have been more clear that if PARCC standards are adopted, students will not face 20 days of continuous testing. But in context, their statement is generally accurate. We rate the statement Mostly True.