Why Florida schools are getting more time for in-person testing

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The Palm Beach Post | by Sonja Isger | February 16, 2021

Florida is not backing down on its insistence that students take statewide exams in person, but Monday the Department of Education extended the testing season by two weeks. The stated aim is to give students more elbow room when they sit for the hours-long tests.

But the move also buys time for the state to apply for any waivers from federal testing requirements that may be on the horizon under a new presidential administration, notes testing critic Bob Schaeffer, interim Executive Director of FairTest. 

A required return to campus for testing has been a hot-button topic for both educators and parents for months. 

While about 35% of the state’s K-12 students are attending school remotely, the numbers are higher in one of the state’s former coronavirus hotspots. Roughly 48%, or more than 80,000 Palm Beach County students log in to lessons from home.

Bringing them back for state exams raises concerns about the ability to keep students the recommended 6 feet apart, but also about test anxiety and logistics. 

The county’s high schools have been coping with the challenge on a smaller scale since the fall, as seniors have had to come in to make up end-of-course exams that were scuttled in the spring but still required to graduate in 2021, said the district’s top testing official, Mark Howard.

In an effort to maintain acceptable social distances between students, schools set up testing areas in cafeterias or libraries and had the students make appointments to come in, Howard said.

Schools anticipate doing the same on a larger scale when spring exams begin in April, he said.

Florida intends to test all students in grades 3 through 6 in reading and math, grades 4 through 10 in writing, grades 5 and 8 in science, and grades 9 and 10 in reading and writing. 

Anna DeOliveira teaches second graders math at Heritage Elementary School in Greenacres, September 4, 2020.  [ALLEN EYESTONE/The Palm Beach Post]lm Beach Post]

Anna DeOliveira teaches second grade math at Heritage Elementary School in Greenacres, September 4, 2020. Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post

The tests had been grouped to be given in two-week windows in April or May. The emergency order allows four weeks for each window, with the latest window closing June 11.  

“This allows for more continued social distancing during test administration,” Chancellor Jacob Oliva said in a letter to superintendents accompanying the order. It should also give more test prep time to districts that had a later fall start and thus aren’t closing the school year until later in June, he said. Some 39 districts, including Palm Beach County, will end spring term in June, the state reports. 

The pandemic upended testing last spring, abruptly closing schools across the country.  

In the chaos, Betsy DeVos, education secretary under the Trump administration, released states from their federal obligation to administer tests. But she vowed not to do it again. 

In late January, under the Biden administration, the U.S. Department of Education said it would push pack the Feb. 1 deadline for seeking a waiver. A new deadline hasn’t been set. 

Schaeffer posited Monday: “It could be Florida is buying time. It buys time to get kids back in school and waste more hours on test prep. And if there are waivers, there’s more time to apply and receive them.” 

Featured photo: Giving students proper social distance is one concern when bringing them back for testing. Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post