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The stages of cancer, err make that school accountability in Florida

By Greg Sampson

The Stages of Cancer

Stage One Precancerous: You have a growth.

The State of Florida has, for some years, been committed to perfecting a workable system of accountability for the public schools. The Florida Statewide Assessment Program, begun in 1971, has been an important element in this accountability effort. The program was designed to assess students' academic strengths and weaknesses, particularly in the basic skills. (Quoted from the FLDOE website.)

But the FLDOE website links serve up blank pages when I click on them for their official history of testing in the State.

Let’s move ahead to 1998, when the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test—did I get that right? Because the last two words are redundant) began.

The purpose was to see how students performed against the Sunshine State Standards.

The standards themselves were rather vague and eventually the Department of Education had to specify Grade Level Expectations to tell us what each standard meant as students progressed through school. Few people knew of the Grade Level Expectations: an early warning sign that the testing regime was flawed.

Stage Two Cancer: Your growth is malignant, but it has not spread.

School grades began. In the early years, it was only ranking schools according to test performance. Besides the embarrassment of a low grade, there were no penalties for schools except then there were changes of principal and staff, conversion to a charter, takeover by a school management firm, or closure.

NCLB, the signature education initiative of the George W. Bush administration, used federal ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) dollars to force states into the idea that all schools had to make Adequate Yearly Progress to get all subgroups, i.e. racial, ethnic, ESE, and ED (economically disadvantaged—geesh, I’m getting tired of the euphimisms—the poor!), up to scratch. In the first years of NCLB, schools found it rather easy to hit the targets or get into the ‘safe harbor’ provisions.

Schools with the wrong zip code—a nice way of saying they were in poor, disadvantaged, minority neighborhoods—struggled to meet the targets, but everyone else was fine.

Districts focused resources on healing these few failing schools.

Stage Three Cancer: Your malignancy has spread, but with chemotherapy and radiation we can arrest it.

People who have had cancer or had close family members who have had cancer know these treatments for what they are. Doctors are going to do things to your body to almost kill you, but not quite, in the hope that they will kill the cancer but you will survive.

Every school is under threat. Next Generation Standards emerge. Teachers give in to test preparation and convince themselves that when students pass a test that presumably matches the standards, somehow they have taught the standards. The test looms over everything.

“Throw your book down,” cry principals. “Teach them to pass the test.”

Computer programs are bought. All is preparation for the all-important test. Students stress over how to pick the right answer choice on the test.

Principals are fired; teachers are threatened. Children bawl.

Test results become part of the annual evaluation of school-based personnel. Invalid statistical measurements based on a best-selling book about baseball are used to decide hiring and firing of teachers. Denounced by professional statisticians, the measurements nevertheless are forced upon teachers.

Tests are everywhere. If everyone must be measured by data, data must be had. Districts are commanded to produce a test for every subject at every grade level to answer the criticism that teachers are being measured by data that is irrelevant to their job. Reading data for art teachers is one example. Now we have testing without end, every subject, every teacher, every child.

Public reaction. Too much testing. Tests are dropped, but now we are back to measuring teachers by tests that have nothing to do with the subject they teach. When did a student have to read in order to pass Physical Education?

Technology is put into classrooms despite the inappropriateness for authentic student learning. It is there to produce data—the chemotherapy of education. A steady drip of data will destroy the cancer.

Stage Four Cancer: The disease has metastasized in all the organs of your body. The prognosis is terminal. You will die.

New standards, new tests, new cut scores—those arbitrary levels that pass judgment on whether a student is a failure or not. States deliberately set those levels to fail most students—70% or higher.

Public schools must die.

“They kill horses, don’t they?”

(A reference from a movie about horses that break legs and cannot be healed. The humane thing is deemed to be euthanization.)

Public schools are at Stage Four by design of politicians, the rich, and misguided reformers. But wait, public schools are not really at Stage Four cancer, they have no broken legs and they don’t need to be killed. But the big money needs you to believe that.

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