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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Florida's top down approach to education is failing

From the Herald Tribune

School boards and the state Department of Education are not having a healthy conversation about Florida's student-testing regime.

The boards and the department are communicating -- through stilted resolutions by the Florida School Board Association and defensive statements by the education commissioner -- but they are not engaged in productive dialogue. That is not good for students, teachers, parents or the state.

Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson is on the record as stating that Florida's stakeholders in education "need to have a very healthy conversation about why assessments matter."

Yet on Thursday, Robinson criticized school boards and their associations for questioning the state's policies, including a heavy reliance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests and other exams.

In response to a resolution adopted by the association during its meeting in Tampa, Robinson erroneously contended that school boards "question the need for educational assessments," contradicting his own assertion by noting that school districts require students to take more tests than the state mandates. He also said the boards are "short on providing hope to schoolchildren" and continued to refer to the FCAT as a "so-called high-stakes assessment."

Impacts on students

By any other measure than Robinson's, the FCAT and other exams mandated by the state are, in fact, high stakes. The results of these tests are being used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, allocate funding and determine whether students advance to the next grade or graduate from high school.

It would be better if Robinson spent less time parsing "high stakes" and more time listening to the legitimate criticism of school boards, teachers, parents and students.

The resolution adopted by the association last week -- and to be considered soon by the Manatee and Sarasota county boards -- does not call into question the need for educational assessments. The association did, however, challenge Florida's "over-reliance" on specific tests and expressed valid concerns about its impacts on students.

The association also called for an independent review and evaluation of Florida's tests and testing regime; in light of their wide-ranging effects and discrepancies in outcomes, the call for state accountability measures is warranted.

Robinson challenged some of the facts and figures in the association's resolution, specifically as they relate to student participation in electives. His argument appeared to use certain courses, such as dance and drama, selectively. But the Manatee and Sarasota boards should ensure that any local resolution under consideration accurately depicts reality in public schools and provides a broad-based accounting of impacts.

Top-down approach

As the Herald-Tribune Editorial Board has long stated, the FCAT and other exams have a role to play in education. The FCAT was originally and wisely intended as a diagnostic tool for teachers and parents; however, the stakes associated with statewide tests have risen.

What's more, we recognize the FCAT has, in fact, pushed schools to focus on important subjects, such as reading, and led to some improvements in student learning. The adoption of a statewide curriculum also has been a plus.

But the Legislature and the Education Department have generally taken a top-down, heavy-handed approach to student testing.

Before the FCAT and statewide standards were imposed, Florida's 67 school districts lacked a cohesive approach to education. However, when locally elected officials, who have a direct stake in public education, say Florida has gone too far with its rigid policies, state officials and legislators should listen. Like students, they don't have all the right answers.

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