End-of-course exams off to dubious start

Students throughout Florida may rejoice at the knowledge that the hated FCAT tests are being replaced. However, the Florida Legislature and Department of Education’s plan to replace it fails to improve on the original tests.

The Legislature intends to replace some parts of the FCAT with end-of-course exams. The new exams are only being piloted right now, so it’s hard to say what problems will arise or be solved by the time the tests are fully implemented. At the moment, though, there seem to be several.

This year, all ninth-graders who are in Algebra I or a higher math class are required to take the Algebra I end-of-course exam. This requirement fails to consider high-performing students: many freshmen at West Shore are taking Geometry or Algebra II, not Algebra I. While higher math classes do build on Algebra I, students in Geometry or Algebra II will not necessarily remember all of the terminology and concepts from Algebra I.

Requiring students to take an exam one or more years after their last day learning the material is not a good way to measure theirs or their teachers’ performance. Even without considering students’ experiences, requiring students who are not in Algebra I to take the test is not a good way to pilot the exam. Low scores from students who don’t remember their Algebra I concepts — or high scores from students with an understanding of higher math — will skew the results so that they do not accurately reflect the effectiveness of the exam. If the Geometry end-of-course exam is piloted next year as expected, it may present the same problems for 10th-grade students in Algebra II and Pre-Calculus.
The state’s plan is for end-of-course exams to eventually apply to all courses; however, this could cause further difficulties. Students would have to take 14 exams each May to complete both the end-of-course exams and their teachers’ exams. Teachers may not have time to cover all of the topics that they need to cover, review for the end-of-course exams and review for their exams. Also, performance-based classes such as newspaper, yearbook and band will be difficult to test.
Compounding the difficulty of creating exams for music and art courses, the new exams will be taken on the computer.  This enables cheating, since most schools lack the computer lab capacity for all students to take the exam at the same time. Additionally, the use of computers means that if the school loses power or a computer failure occurs halfway through the exam, students’ progress may be lost, forcing them to retake the exam — and unless the retake is administered right away, or the test completely changed, some students may be able to remember questions and find answers to them between the aborted test and the retake. The heavy computer use may cause issues with the school’s Internet connection, like those experienced when the 10th-grade FCAT math test was taken online.

Finally, extended computer use can lead to eye strain and headaches, which will make it more difficult for students to complete the test.
The end-of-course exams could prove a boon for students who despise FCATs, but only if the Department of Education recognizes problems that arise and fixes them before the tests are permanently implemented. Should they fail to do so, the new exams may end up just as abominable as the FCAT.

By Dana Brown