Test Stress: What does testing look like for Florida students today?

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BAY COUNTY, Fla (WJHG/WECP) - “They’re always talking about who’s dating who but I’m just not interested in that.”

Ariel Harris is interested in school and said she takes her studies seriously. She reads constantly, takes high level courses, plays softball and the saxophone in the school band. In fact she takes it so seriously that the 13-year-old seventh grade student from Surfside Middle School has already taken her SAT test. The tests aren't usually expected from students until their junior and senior year of high school.

“I feel like colleges are watching you starting now and they’re gonna watch your grades and your transcripts," she said. "And you should have at or above 100s in most of your classes if you really want to try and impress them.”

While Ariel pushes herself to the highest standards, the over achiever believes school doesn’t always push her in the right direction.

“I feel like they should demand more but also that they shouldn’t test you on memorizing things, but how you think and feel," Ariel said while in her bedroom, surrounded by her books. "Like they should be teaching you to get passionate. And really get into what you’re learning but really they’re teaching you to be formal and boring and I just feel like they’re not doing what they could be.”

“Honestly I let her do her thing," said mom Jenny Harris, hands up and laughing. "I’m there to support her but I try to keep her back to reality a little bit too… We definitely try to get her grounded, but when it comes to the academic stuff, that’s all her.”

Some parents, like Ariel's mom, only see the effects of today's education standards at the end of the 7 or so hour school day.

"It’s a lot different than when I was growing up," Harris said, "so I kind of depend on her knowledge of how things are to kind of guide me through what to expect.”

The generational gap in understanding is something students say contributes to the stress. Teachers can't relate to the workload and parents, as usual, just don't get it.

"The standards have changed so much that my dad does everything one way and sometimes I look at it and I’m like, where did you learn that?” said Noah, a junior student at Mosely High School.

Noah and Laura Corbin, a sophomore, agreed there is a lot of pressure for high school students to being thinking about college and their careers early on. The weight of big time tests like the Florida Standards Assessments, End of Course Exams and SAT or ACTS add to the pressure.

"I know of a lot of my friends that can really stress out over those tests," Laura said, "and I know like a couple girls that are my close friends that can even like get sick like make themselves sick over just being stressed from those tests.”

Laura and Noah agreed there is trouble with the one-size-fits-all approach to testing, hoping the system could instead show off each students' personal strengths. Harris agreed.

“There’s thousands of millions of kids and there’s one testing," Harris said. "There’s one structure there’s one you know and it should just be more customized to each child I think.”

Teachers like Lindsey Piotrowski see the in-between parents like Harris miss out on during the school day. The Mowat Middle school civics teacher said she tries to fill in the gaps between Florida’s school districts and its legislature, citing a drastic lack of communication between both parties.

“Using a standardized test at the state level or the federal level is a problem because I’ve never met a standardized child,” she said.

She believes the testing season has become just that , a season of rigor always forecasting stress.

“It’s not about what’s coming out of their mouths, it’s what I’m seeing on their faces," Piotrowski said. "And what I'm seeing is stress, what I’m seeing is worry. I think it’s really problematic because it plays into their self worth. There’s the question of if I pass this test or if I fail this test will I get to move to the next grade? Am I going to be the grade behind my friends are my friends going to stop being my friends because I’m a disgrace because I haven’t made the next grade level?"

Pietrowski suggests smaller, more frequent tests that carry less weight to measure her students gains.

Piotrowski said stress bears down on teachers as well. Those like her who don’t teach what’s measured by the FSAs still get evaluated on their students’ performance. She said it's frustrating teachers who feel like their effectiveness is instead measured by the effectiveness of their peers.

Those same tests frustrate the district.

“I still fully believe they were based on a flawed assessment," said Camilla Hudson, Coordinator of Assessment and Accountability for Bay District Schools. "I think last year’s assessment had too many glitches, too many problems to be used to grade a school and I think that’s the part that’s broken but that’s out of our control.”

The district's board members have acknowledged there are problems, but notes their administrative hands are tied, bound by state mandated requirements for testing and faculty evaluation.

The district superintendent, Bill Husfelt, has said he is inclined to support one standardized exam, such as using the SAT or ACT to measure student gains and use a vetted system of accountability.
If or until that happens, the state claims it’s been working hard to update and fix last year’s kinks in the system.

Hudson says they’re cautiously optimistic about this year’s testing.

As for stress, Hudson said teachers and parents are urged to remind students to do their best, and that that is all that is required of them. She said guidance counselors are well equipped to help students manage stress should it become a problem.

Ariel got a 1660 on her SAT and is mildly satisfied. She believes that in much the same way her high pitch can’t show off her fast pitch, one assessment won’t be enough to paint the whole picture.

“One test shouldn’t represent you but your entire schooling should.