In Tampa parents and some teachers tell Florida's education commissioner they want FCAT to go

05/24/12 Janelle Irwin
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Outraged parents and teachers are telling Florida’s top education officials the state’s high stake tests are flawed. They told Florida’s Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson in Tampa last night, the FCAT is a waste of time and needs to go.

“This is not what we do in real life. Nobody says, ‘here’s your prompt, you have 45 minutes, put it out there. In 45 minutes. And elaborate.”

Plant City 4th grade teacher Faye Cook said the state’s standardized testing system doesn’t reflect real life situations.

“And you better have really specific details and they better be well elaborated and it better be spelled correctly and punctuated and every capital letter correct and, oh yeah, put those commas in a series of three. But it’s only a draft.’ But the problem is, nobody writes that way in the real world. In the real world we use a dictionary, we use a spell check, we ask the person next to us – I’m having trouble with this word, could you help me out with it?”

She wants certain students – like those with learning disabilities – to be able to access things like dictionaries to double check their work. And she argued that tests like the FCAT are forcing teachers into a situation where they only teach what will be on the test. That leaves out things like history, art and music. Education Commissioner Robinson contended that may not be as big of a problem as people are making it out to be.

“Before the invention of FCAT, people didn’t like teaching to whatever other assessment we had. People just simply don’t like tests. Not all, but some. That’s number one. Number two, I’ve run into a lot of teachers throughout the state who are getting great results with some of our more disadvantaged students who are not teaching to the test. So, there are teachers who aren’t teaching who are getting results. I also realize there are teachers who said, ‘Guess what? My job is on the line, I’ve got to teach for the test.’”

State officials made the FCAT grading rubric a lot tougher this year. Because of that, only 27% of fourth graders passed their writing assessment. So now the state is lowering passing scores on a six point scale from four to three in order to bring that percentage back up to where it was last year. Maureen Peterkin is a parent looking for answers. Why did the FCAT standards change? And if it was so important to make passing harder, why the complete flip-flop?

“Well, the question is, what was the format of the test that they thought our children would achieve and they didn’t to the point that they have to lower the standards again? So, it’s still concerning. Are we meeting the goals or are we making our students look like their meeting the goals?”

Robinson said the reason the state raised FCAT standards was so that Florida students can compete in a global economy. But he said the unexpected drop in passing grades can be a learning experience.

“While there was a problem with the process, the product that we received is still in place. Valid scores, something that students can use next year as a template to better help them with what we’re going to do next year.”

With so many young students being told they failed, one advocate asked how to restore children’s confidence levels. State Board of Education Chair Kathleen Shanahan said parents and teachers need to explain that the higher stakes don’t mean the student suddenly forgot how to write.

“So, people really need to understand what happened. It wasn’t about the kids being dumber. It’s about the standards being raised. It’s about kids being taught something that they need to use in the business world.”

But even though officials have said they are committed to ensuring students are receiving quality education, some parents aren’t convinced. Sarah Robinson is the mother of a middle school student. With a pin on her shirt that read “Spay the FCAT” she reeled off a typed out speech about why she thinks the test is a waste of time.

“My own daughter, almost a month out of the school year she’s taking tests. And so many things are being pushed aside because of it.”

Robinson said her daughter has missed school events because of FCAT preparation and other required assessments. She’s been opposed to the state’s standardized testing methods for more than a decade. When this year’s scores were reported, it reinvigorated her push to oppose process.

“Their own test results, in my opinion, prove that their whole testing agenda hasn’t worked.”

Robinson’s nearly five minute harangue prompted a booming round of applause from other parents. But State Board of Education Chair Shanahan fired back arguing that FCAT is a necessary measure of student success.

“12 years ago when I came to the state of Florida, Florida was ranked 48th out of 50 states in terms of what their children were learning. 48 out of 50 12 years ago. We’re now 5th. I don’t make this up. This is all done by national standards I’m not going to get into. Graduation rate ten years ago was ten percent lower than it is today. Are we happy that it’s only 80% of our kids graduating from high school? No. Is that an improvement over the last ten years? Yes. Those are the measurements that people need to know. Data reflects the facts.”

The bottom line, Robinson said, is even though the drastic drop in passing rates on the writing assessment wasn’t anticipated,

“We identified that there would be a drop in both the reading and mathematics because the standards were raised.”

Board of Education chair Shanahan urged FCAT critics to keep in mind that increasing rigor is what is needed prepare students for real life situations.

“53% of Florida businesses are saying that the top three skills that students do not have – so we don’t have a jobs crisis, when you read in the paper there’s no jobs for graduating seniors, there’s not the right skill sets for the jobs that are available.”

The FCAT is administered to kids from third grade through high school. The writing assessment is done in 4th, 8th and 10th grades. Robinson will be in Boca Raton Friday and Jacksonville on Monday to answer parents’ questions.

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