FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Sunshine State is ready to part ways with its Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a mainstay in schools for more than a decade. But the unnamed test chosen this week to replace the outgoing FCAT exam is being met with hesitation among some superintendents.
Dr. Nancy Graham, Superintendent of Lee County Schools, expressed her concerns in an interview with WINK News Anchor Cayle Thompson.
"I don't think I'm alone in that this assessment -- which has yet to be field tested -- has not been tested against our (Florida) standards," said Dr. Graham, worried too much is riding on the first year's results.
"Teacher performance pay, school grades, children graduating based on scores on a test that has yet to be named. Those are all concerns," she said. "The accountability itself has never been a concern."
Pam Stewart, the state's education commissioner, announced earlier this week that she has approved a six-year contract with a not-for-profit outfit to develop a new test that students will be required to take a year from now.
"I feel very confident that it is the best choice for Florida's students and the assessment is going to measure their progress and achievement on Florida standards," Stewart said.
Stewart's decision to approve the $220 million contract with American Institutes for Research marks yet another significant step toward the state's transition away from the FCAT, which has drawn both praise and scorn for the way it transformed the state's public schools.
The new tests will include more than the multiple-choice questions that are a framework for many standardized tests, including the FCAT. The commissioner also said Monday that students will use paper and pencil to complete the tests initially, but that schools will gradually transition to online tests.
In a letter sent to principals Monday, Stewart said students will be asked to create graphs, interact with test content and "and write and respond in different ways than they would on traditional tests." She added that the new questions will assess "higher order thinking skills" that are part of the "higher expectations" included in the state's new standards.
"With this test, and more importantly with the Florida standards, the emphasis is on critical and analytical thinking," said Joe Follick, director of communications for the Department of Education. "Teachers have more flexibility with these new standards, rather than teaching students to memorize things to pass the FCAT."
Former Gov. Jeb Bush made the FCAT the centerpiece of his A-through-F school grading system. Test results were not only used to evaluate schools but also to determine whether third-graders should be held back and whether high school students were ready to graduate. Debate over the FCAT even triggered a change in state law over when the school year would start.
The new test, which still does not have a name, will be based on a new set of standards that are based largely on the contentious Common Core State Standards. Florida officials tweaked the math and English standards earlier this year to include such items as a requirement for cursive writing. But this change has not ended the backlash against Common Core.
Florida was initially part of a national consortium developing a Common Core test, but the state pulled out of the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders.
The group selected Monday has ties to a different national consortium that developing its own Common Core test but Stewart insisted the new test will be Florida-specific. She did note, however, that the type of questions used on the test was being tried out first this year in the state of Utah.
When Florida first adopted Common Core standards, one of the arguments in its favor was that it would allow parents to compare how Florida students compared to students in other states. Stewart, however, said that there would be advantages to the new test, including that it would take less time than the one developed by the national consortium and could be given later in the school year.
Dr. Graham said many superintendents, including herself, want to see the test before it's administered.
"We have to trust that the commissioner believes she is doing the right thing for our state," Dr. Graham said, "because we have nothing to go on to prove that it's aligned to our standards."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)