FCAT Fever

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Anyone living
in my home state of Florida knows from the title of this that FCAT
stands for Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The FCAT is Florida's
response to President Bush's No
Child Left Behind
initiative. Educators affectionately use the
term "Nickle-B" when describing No Child Left Behind.
Many of us pronounce the FCAT acronym "F-THAT." Further
explanation of that moniker would require a PG-13 rating. Florida
gets a double dose of Bushism because Jeb Bush, our governor is
you-know-who's brother. Jeb has a plan called the A+
(or perhaps it's the A++) Plan. Briefly, the combination of the
two influences in Florida education amounts to Uncle Sam and Brother
Jeb sticking their noses way too far into public education.

On the surface,
it may appear that the FCAT (are you pronouncing that correctly?)
would provide a standard by which to judge our students' progress.
After all, it allegedly tests their abilities in math, reading,
and science. And if the rumors are true, more subject areas will
be added in the future. So an outsider might conclude the tests
only validate the actions and efforts of public education. What
could possibly wrong with that, one might ask?

The first concern
teachers have with this test is that many of the questions are outrageously
obscure. I have peeked at a test or two (probably should not admit
to that sin…) and I have seen questions that are absurd, difficult
to answer correctly, and hold no validity in measuring a student's
academic abilities. I have seen pointless math problems that many
well-educated adults would have to struggle to solve.

The next concern
teachers have with the FCAT is that every student who wishes to
graduate from a public school in Florida must pass the test. This
puts tremendous stress on our students. In my school, we have a
large Hispanic population and many of our students communicate in
English only with teachers and only during the time they are in
class. They speak Spanish to their friends, speak Spanish at home,
watch Spanish television, listen to Spanish radio, and read the
Spanish newspaper. It is common for our students to test very high
on the math portion of the FCAT yet perform poorly on the reading/writing
portions. A person reading this article in Middle America, or some
place where everyone in town looks the same and speaks only English
might think, well, screw them! Let them learn to speak our language.
When the population of an area actually is dominated by Spanish
speakers, "our" de facto language in reality is their
language. I happen to have a former student who is finishing medical
school at Tufts University who failed the writing portion of the
FCAT on her first attempt. I often reflect on the important contribution
she will be making to humanity and think of how important this paper
test must have been to her when she took it.

Another concern
the teaching community has with the state-sponsored assessment is
that Brother Jeb has installed incentives for schools to perform
well. This amounts to granting letter grades to the public schools
based on every school's FCAT results. If a school earns an A or
a B rating, the teachers, administrators, and staff get a nice cash
bonus. If a school raises their performance up from a D or an F,
they also get a bonus. Depending on the fuzzy math the state uses,
the bonus may range in the $1,000 plus range.

A Theory
person might conclude that offering incentives to teachers
to improve student performance ought to get results. One might further
conclude that a state-sponsored test would assure accountability
and uniformity across the state. In practice, however, neither is

Part of the
breakdown is due to the way people settled and where they choose
to live. Miami-Dade County is not a melting pot of cultures and
ethnic groups. It is more accurately described as a salad bowl.
The many neighborhoods in the county (which also defines our school
district) retain their particular identities. Like choose to live
with like. Neighborhoods are defined by culture, socioeconomics,
and ethnicity. Hence, we have sections of the district where the
rich and influential live, sections where blue-collar families live,
and sections where the poor and the very poor live.

A school that
is located in a very poor section of the district, or one that is
located in a neighborhood where English is the second or third language
spoken generally earns low scores on the FCAT tests. The county
further suffers from the constant movement of families in and out
of the district. Yet the one-size-fits-all FCAT test is administered
to every student. And the hold-your-feet-to-the-fire mentality is
applied to every teacher in the district. The result is that certain
schools always do very well, certain other schools always earn the
dreaded F rating, and a third group of schools (like the one where
I teach) are the definition of a C school. The "failing"
schools lose their faculties to turnover at an alarming rate. The
A schools have waiting lists of teachers vying to get in.

The test becomes
high stakes for students because they must pass it to graduate.
The test is high stakes for administrators because it is used as
a yardstick by which their administrative abilities can be measured.
It is a huge plume in the hat of the principal who can turn a school's
performance around. The test is high stakes for teachers because
of the monetary incentive.

The importance
of the FCAT has reached such heights that it is now cited in our
lesson plans, our school goals, our accreditation reviews, and even
our applications for funding. If an applicant can tie an FCAT goal
to a proposal for a special project, it has a good chance of being
funded. One could make the truthful observation that we are teaching
to the test.

The importance
of the FCAT is drilled into the heads of our students from elementary
school through middle school and through high school. Children in
third grade must pass a version of the FCAT to be promoted to fourth
grade. Eighth graders must pass an FCAT test or they will be placed
in remedial classes the following year. Tenth graders take the FCAT
required for graduation. Tenth graders who fail can re-take the
test in their junior and senior year, if necessary.

Another reason
the test fails to measure performance and is not a valid indicator
of success is that not all students were created equally before
they started their progression through the education mill. The very
qualities that make us all different — whether it is a gift or a
learning disability — destroy the cookie cutter efforts of paper
tests. I happen to be one of those weirdo teachers who believe that
perhaps college is not for everyone and that people can live successful,
happy lives in non-professional careers. I further believe that
success or failure can not be directly tied to bubbling on answer

We are now
in the month that the FCAT is administered to our students. As one
might imagine, the school is doing everything our administration
can imagine to get the students to do their best on the test. Today,
for example, we passed out plastic bracelets to our students embossed
with "Eagles…Make It Happen." Every teacher was issued
a t-shirt emblazoned with the same slogan. Our morning announcements
always conclude with making it happen. Surely the t-shirts and bracelets
are going to earn the school at least a B grade!

7, 2006

Woolley [send him mail]
is a disabled Vietnam veteran living in Miami, Florida. He served
with the 9th Infantry Division in The Mekong Delta in
a Ranger unit doing reconnaissance 1968–69 where he received
a gunshot wound to the head leaving one side severely paralyzed.
He is a father of four grown children and grandfather of seven,
including a set of triplets.

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