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Education

Meet Florida's New Statewide Test

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freedigitalphotos.net

This spring, Florida students will take a brand new test tied to the state’s new math, reading and writing standards.

This is the test that replaces the FCAT. It's known as the Florida Standards Assessment, and it’ll be online.

What’s on the test won’t be the only thing different about the exam. Students will also find new types of questions.

We gathered your questions about the new exam from our Public Insight Network. Here’s what you you wanted to know -- and what it’ll mean for students and schools.

Bill Younkin from Miami Beach is wondering about the fact that the exam’s online.

“What type of test will it be? How will it be administered?" he asks. "Will there be a paper and pencil alternative? What types of questions will it contain? How long will it take to administer?”

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Credit Screen shot / Florida Department of Education
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Florida Department of Education
This math question requires students to fill in the blanks. The question provides more possible answer choices than blanks.

Last year, Florida students took 3.8 million tests using computers – so online exams are nothing new in Florida. But the Florida Standards Assessment is different from past exams.

The new exam will be more interactive (you can see practice questions here).

Some questions ask students to move items around, sorting correct answers from those that are wrong.

Others ask students to choose the correct answer from drop-down menus or fill in the blanks in math problems.

There are also audio questions on the exam. Students will have to listen to a recording – a student talks about Diwali in one, another was a science podcast about Pluto – and answer questions based on the clip.

The new test is longer than the FCAT exams being replaced – but not as long as tests other states have adopted. The Florida Standards Assessment adds 40 minutes to third grade testing, 160 minutes to sixth and seventh grade testing and 270 minutes for high school juniors who previously didn’t have to take the FCAT exam.

And every student in fourth through 11th grade will now take a writing test each year. Previously, only students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades took the FCAT writing exam.

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Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida
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StateImpact Florida
This chart compares testing time for the FCAT to the new Florida Standards Assessment.

Younkin worries scoring well on the Florida Standards Assessment could depend more on a student’s computer skills than on what they learned in school.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart doesn’t share that concern as she told the State Board of Education last week.

“Are we actually testing their writing,” she asked, “or are we then testing their computer skills? I would suggest to you the answer to that really is we need to be doing both.”

Third and fourth graders will use pencil and paper for their math and reading tests.

But Stewart compromised with educators on the new writing test. Students will take a pencil and paper version through seventh grade -- this year. The state will decide later whether or not to use pencil and paper again next year.

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Credit Screen shot / Florida Department of Education
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Florida Department of Education
This chart shows which students will take which exams online, and which will be taken using paper and pencil.

Sunrise resident Mark Eckert asked: “Has this test been field tested?”

Field testing is a way to verify whether a test measures what it’s intended to measure. Field testing is a big concern for teachers, administrators and parents.

Usually, test-makers give prototypes to the same students who will eventually take the new exam.

But when Florida chose the American Institutes of Research to produce the Florida Standards Assessment, the state was short on time.  So AIR -- as it’s known --  is using questions from Utah’s statewide exam.

“Those items were field tested in Utah,” said Vince Verges, who is in charge of testing decisions for the Florida Department of Education.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and other critics say trying out questions on Utah’s mostly white students won’t work for Florida. There are more low-income students here and a higher percentage of Hispanic and black students.

Verges says test-makers account for those demographic differences when they analyze the test questions. But as test-maker Pearson says on their website, with field testing “we can see if gender, ethnicity or even English proficiency impact a child’s ability to successfully perform the task at hand."

Items for the writing exam will be field-tested with Florida students this winter. And Florida staff spent three weeks in Utah hand-picking some of the reading and math questions.

“So we chose the Utah items that best matched the standards,” Verges says.

How the questions are chosen is important because the results of the test matter.

Every year, Florida issues A through F grades for public schools.

The State Board of Education will set the new passing scores over the summer based on the first batch of student scores.

So next year’s public school grades will be released in the fall of 2015, but those grades won’t force any changes at low-rated schools next year.

Penalties -- like having to replace the principal or teachers -- will return in 2016.

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Credit Screen shot / Florida Department of Education
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Florida Department of Education
This question on an elementary reading test requires students to drag correct answers into the box.

But students with low scores on the third grade reading exam can still be held back a year. And students have to pass the tenth grade reading exam to graduate high school.

Teachers will be rated using their students’ test scores according to their district's plan.

Which is why Hollywood resident Dan McMurtrie has one more question for state leaders about the test.

“If the legislators and governor are so confident about how good this test is for education, why don’t they take the seventh grade test?” he asked.

McMurtie wants to compare lawmaker scores with seventh grade teachers’ to see who does better.

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.