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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The job of education commissioner in Florida is solely focused on implementing the marching orders of Jeb Bush and the corporate community.

By Andy Ford
The school year is under way, and once again, the state of Florida is looking for an education commissioner to lead our public schools.
We shouldn't be surprised. The former education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, recently resigned after a year on the job. Robinson inherited a flawed and punitive accountability system laden with standardized tests that was put in place 13 years ago by Gov. Jeb Bush, overseen by Patricia Levesque at his Foundation for Florida's Future and endlessly promoted by legislators who favor for-profit schools, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
This system did not have any input from teachers or other education stakeholders. The job of education commissioner in Florida has devolved into one solely focused on implementing the marching orders of Jeb Bush and the corporate community.
In the 13 years since the implementation of this high-stakes testing approach, teachers, other education professionals and administrators throughout Florida have had to deal with seven education commissioners. Those commissioners have shown little inclination for fairness, little willingness to push for proper funding for public schools, and little interest in communicating honestly with us or to do anything but carry out the wishes and strategies of Jeb Bush and his foundation.
Florida's high-stakes testing approach has been anything but smooth and successful. Since its inception 14 years ago, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has evolved from a simple diagnostic measure of student learning to an all-encompassing arbiter of student, teacher and school performance. The test factors into third-grade promotion, high-school graduation, school funding, class placement, teacher pay and evaluations and even whether a school stays open.
The Florida Education Association and teachers aren't opposed to testing or accountability; we lack confidence in the FCAT and how test results are being misused. We all want to know what students are learning and have trust that any assessment be an accurate representation of what students are learning. The problem is that FCAT is not used as a diagnostic tool for students and teachers to uncover areas of strength and weakness. FCAT is a final, punitive mark. Teachers learn about their students' performances long after school has ended and the students have been promoted or retained.
The past few months have exposed what many have been saying for years about the political misuses and rapidly and ever-evolving abuses of the FCAT. Changing standards in the middle of the school year led to results on the FCAT writing test that led to an emergency meeting of the State Board of Education to allow more students to pass the exam. Those arbitrary and politically driven changes led to lower school grades and more errors that led to more than 200 schools having their grades increased a week later.
FEA has always been a strong supporter of accountability, reform and the proper uses of assessments to gauge teaching and learning. The problem is that the FCAT has been abused by politicians and those wanting to make a profit off public schools and students.
Many educators, including FEA members and leaders, and administrators, believe the test has nocredible value and the results have been proved to be unreliable over time. Many parents dislike the pressure the tests placed on their kids. Opposition has grown so strong, even private-school providers market their schools by saying they don't administer the FCAT.
After this past school year, that opposition has blossomed into a widespread movement against the way politicians, the state education leadership and others have manipulated the testing process.
FEA and parents agree that the state needs a way to measure students' learning progress. FEA believes that tests hold an important place in standards-based education, but only when they are properly designed and used in conjunction with other indicators of student performance.
FEA joins parents, teachers, administrators and school-board members in support of a fair, accurate, trustworthy and reliable accountability system — a system that everyone values and trusts. Our goal should be to invest in our children and provide them with great neighborhood schools and a high quality education. It's a paramount duty of the state, as it says in the Florida Constitution. We must stop investing in testing and start investing in our children.
Andy Ford is president of the Florida Education Association.

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