Florida’s public school students begin taking new state tests in March that will include a little extra intrigue for grades 4 through 11 — essay writing under deadline.


Students will be given two to four informational articles or fiction passages to read and they’ll answer a question in essay form referring to those texts to back up their answers.

Fourth-graders will be allowed to use pen and paper, but fifth- through 11th-graders must compose their essays on computers.

It’ll be a combination of challenges for most fifth-graders and many older students, predicted Duval school board Chairwoman Becki Couch. She said her fifth-grade son is typical, mostly used to writing texts and short emails on computer; he’ll have to develop and practice other skills to compose coherent essays within a short amount of time.

“That’s a big change for them,” she said. “He doesn’t have the keyboarding techniques down because in elementary school they’ve been handwriting their essays. … Are we going to be testing them for their ability to write and articulate their response or are we going to be testing them for keyboarding skills?”

Florida Department of Education officials have said the tests won’t be measuring keyboarding or computer skills, but students’ abilities to read and synthesize complex information and organize and convey ideas about it. The tests may ask them to compare and contrast information, or to offer an opinion or make an argument about the texts.

Students will be graded on the focus and organization of their essays, the evidence they use and ways they elaborate on it, and on their grammar, spelling and use of standard English.

But computer skills may have to come first.

Several Northeast Florida districts said they’re putting keyboarding instruction and practice back into the school day from kindergarten through high school, to be sure students don’t have to worry about typing fluency while they’re mastering their thoughts and words for an essay.

“The truth is, [success] depends on how tech savvy the student is going into the tests,” said Tim Egnor, St. Johns County’s executive director of curriculum. “If you’re used to taking a piece of paper and thinking through [the essay] and crossing lines through your words, that’s writing that is organically different than when you’re keyboarding.”

Florida’s old writing tests, the FCATs, were given on paper to grades 4, 8 and 10. Students had a prescribed amount of writing space and up to 60 minutes to think, organize, write and revise.

Reading wasn’t a big part of it. Students were asked to write their opinions or ideas about such things as how fame changes a life (grade 10) or to persuade an important person to visit your town (grade 8).

About 53 to 64 percent of Florida’s students who took it passed it last year, depending on grade level.

Florida’s new assessments will require more critical thinking while reading and writing, to encourage students to up their mental game so by the time they graduate from high school, they’re ready for college or a career, state officials have said.

But school officials are wary. Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti pointed out that there are still too many unanswered questions about this state test.

For instance, he said, no one knows how much time students have to read and write and how long their essays must be.

Also, the grading system hasn’t been worked out, so teachers won’t know how the essays will be scored or what it takes for young writers to get the most points, he said.

It’s hard to train the teachers to help the students get ready for the essay if the state doesn’t reveal those things until after the school year starts, Vitti said.

“I am a strong supporter of the new standards … but I am deeply concerned about the assessments,” he said. “We haven’t given teachers the opportunity to see ... how children’s writing will be judged.”

There are preliminary “rubrics” online, specs with general descriptions about what’s expected for skill and grade level, but those can be changed after the public comment period ends Sept. 12.

Florida also plans to speed up its essay grading this year by employing for the first time an automated computer program and a human for each essay. Until now FCATs were graded with the two human scorers and a third to resolve differences.

Experts say automated computer graders have gotten better than their predecessors, which research showed were sometimes fooled by big, nonsensical words or eloquently loaded sentences espousing absurdities.

Mark Shermis, dean of the School of Education at the University of Houston in Clear Lake, said that today’s top grading machines matched or exceeded their human counterparts. More study needs to be done, he said, into differences between man and machine based on gender, ethnicity or economic status.

“The machine scoring algorithms are based on statistical models of human behavior,” he said, “and end up with results that are remarkably similar.”

He likened it to measuring the width of a refrigerator using a measuring tape or a laser measuring device; “they both use different technologies but the results end up being exactly the same,” he said.

Even so, districts like St. Johns and Duval are responding with their own computer-based programs to boost students’ reading comprehension and writing in time for the test.

St. Johns County, for instance, is using a program featuring social studies documents; for example, multiple accounts of a single historic event, and then getting children to answer prompts that mimic the state writing exam, Egnor said.

Duval recently bought an online literacy program which includes about 1,000 passages from science, social studies and history. Students write summaries or essays and its artificially intelligent scoring system evaluates the meaning of their writing by comparing it to what the original texts say.

The program gives students feedback and advice and stores it all in an online portfolio.

Ultimately, it’s too early to tell if students will learn reading and writing better on computer versus paper. Research has been mixed.

But, Egnor said, anecdotal evidence suggests that students can be more engaged and stay on task better using technology.

“Students typically do not fall asleep while they’re using their cellphones,” he said. “But how many times have you seen a student fall asleep while reading a book?”


Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083