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What you didn't know about the FCAT
From the Orlando Sentinel, by Leslie Postal
A growing backlash against standardized testing in Florida could reach an important crossroads this week in Tampa when the Florida School Boards Association takes up the issue.
The association's expected debate about FCAT comes after a number of school boards, includingOsceola County's, adopted anti-testing resolutions criticizing Florida's "overreliance" on the exams. Other groups have joined, too, pressing a "Fight FCAT" message.
The school-board association could endorse the effort at its annual gathering Thursday.
Fueling the anti-testing fire, however, are some incorrect or debatable claims about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test taken by nearly 2 million students a year. Some are included in a white paper produced by Orange County School Board Member Rick Roach and parents, educators and other Central Florida school-board members.
What is the white paper, and what does it say?
Released last month, the 26-page report argues the state's testing system has too many negative "ramifications." The report aims to "fuel grassroots efforts for change to educational policy on high stakes testing."
What do Roach and supporters of "anti-testing" resolutions want?
Some want an end to all testing. Others want testing to count for less, so that important decisions — such as whether a student needs remedial reading — don't hinge on one exam.
"Each FCAT test is one test with a lifetime of consequences," Roach said.
What does the Florida Department of Education say?
The department says testing is a critical way to gauge student progress and has helped Florida make significant academic strides. It also calls the white paper "flawed" and full of misleading or inaccurate information. The paper, for example, says the state mandates that schools use "practice tests" ahead of FCAT, which is not true.
Does testing cost too much?
Florida has a multiyear, $254 million contract with Pearson, a national testing company, to administer FCAT and end-of-course exams. The amount spent this year is less than a third of a percentage point of the state's total education budget of about $20 billion.
Roach and others, however, argue that testing leads to other costs, such as schools hiring substitutes because teachers must proctor exams. "Why would you spend money on something you don't need? Adollar spent is too much," Roach said.
Does the state require students be retained if they fail FCAT?
State law requires retention for third-graders who score very poorly — a 1 on the 5-level exam — on the FCAT reading test. But the law has exemptions, and typically only about half those who score a 1 ended up barred from fourth grade. The white paper claimed 2,500 Orange students were held back last year, but state data show it was 1,280.
Is retention harmful?
Educators and researchers have debated this issue for years. Some say retention harms kids and has no long-term benefits. But Florida says its data show students who are held back do better through middle school than struggling students who move immediately to fourth grade.
Are there too many tests that take up too much time?
School districts say they test on more than 40, and sometimes nearly 80, of 180 school days. That can be "frustrating" for teachers because "they have to maneuver around that," said Charlotte Barolet, testing coordinator at Hagerty High School near Oviedo.
But not all the tests are taken by all students, and not all are required by the state. The Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading, for example, are required for struggling students in grades three to 12. They are time-consuming and given three times a year. But some districts, such as Orange, give them to many more youngsters and could choose to cut back.
"If it's helping the kids learn the standards, and it's helping the teachers inform instruction … what's the problem?" said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Do the majority of students fail the 10th-grade FCAT reading exam needed for graduation?
That exam has been historically difficult for students to pass. But the white paper misstated the passing rate last year, saying it was 39 percent. Actually, 60 percent passed at the mark needed for a diploma. This year, it fell to 50 percent. But the paper is correct that thousands of students statewide take remedial-reading classes in high school because they failed FCAT.
Are the high-school FCAT exams based on "trickery" that requires students to use more than comprehension skills?
The Education Department said the exam is not designed to trick but to assess the state's language-arts standards, which require high-school students to have more-sophisticated reading skills than basic comprehension. The standards, for example, say students should learn to recognize "nuances in word meaning" and to make "inferences drawn from the text."
Is FCAT too stressful for students?
Some think so, describing crying students and those who are so nervous that they vomit during the exams. But plenty of students are nonchalant about the tests or shrug them off as boring.
The advocacy group Fund Education Now thinks the entire testing system is out of kilter. "The pressure is on students to deliver scores for their school, so their teachers can keep their jobs and to secure their own future," said Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando mother and one of the group's founders. "They're sucking the joy of learning out."
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said schooling does invite anxiety, whether from worrying about a championship game or fretting about a key test, but adults can help students manage that. "Are students stressed by the test or are adults stressing them out by the tests?" he said.
Does Pearson control FCAT and testing in Florida?
Jay Wheeler, an Osceola County School Board member who helped put together the white paper, thinks state leaders have "abdicated their role to the company."
But the state says hundreds of teachers help put together the exams every year.
Martha Heine and Rebecca Summerlot, two teachers from Evans High School near Orlando, are among those who have helped with the FCAT writing exam.
"Absolutely, we are essential to the process. In fact, test development isn't possible without the input from teachers in the field," they wrote in an email. For the writing test, they said, teachers helped choose the essay topics, assess them "for bias and sensitivity issues" and devise the scoring "rubric" used to grade the tests.
What's happening this week?
When it meets in Tampa on Thursday, the state school-boards association could adopt either the national anti-testing resolution or another Florida-specific resolution that calls for the state to revise its testing system. Some FCAT opponents also plan to ask Orange School Board members Tuesday to adopt the national resolution against high-stakes testing.
Is there a chance FCAT will go away?
Sections of the FCAT are to sunset in a few years, but they are to be replaced by a new series of standardized tests. Gov. Rick Scott, who earlier this year asked the Education Department to rank schools and districts, talks frequently of the importance of "measurement," so it seems unlikely testing would go away during his administration. Federal law also requires testing to secure federal schoolfunding.