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Rita M. Solnet

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"Let's Be Real Clear"

Posted: 06/20/2012 11:11 am

"Let's be real clear." That's what Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said to Florida School Board members who convened in Orlando on June 14th at the FSBA Conference.

"What they're focusing on is high-stakes testing, which is a political way of saying that "We just don't like testing. Let's be real clear." - Florida Education Commissioner Robinson

I agree. Let's be real clear.This is not an anti-testing resolution.

To state that the resolution opposes testing and accountability is disingenuous and silly. If the Commissioner, his staff, or their chief consultants at Florida's Foundation for Excellence in Education actually read the 'Resolution Opposing Over-Reliance on High Stakes Tests,' they'd understand that, as its title states, it opposes the over-reliance of this one test taken on this one day.

It is not testing we oppose. Rather, it is what this one test has morphed into that we oppose. It is not accountability we oppose. Rather, it is the irrational and costly accountability built into this one test we oppose.

Florida's Commission on Education Reform embarked upon its 'accountability' journey in 1995, no doubt, with great intentions. In 1998, they created and field-tested the first FCAT in four grades. By 1999, schools were assigned a letter grade based upon FCAT scores. Two years later, our Board of Education established passing the FCAT as a diploma requirement. By 2002, making Average Yearly Progress (AYP) -- part of the 100% proficiency law within NCLB -- was also added to the school score which is, of course, based upon the FCAT.

During the next decade, policymakers heaped mandate after mandate atop the FCAT: remediation, instructional time, grade retention, teacher merit pay, and mandated methods to close low performing schools while simultaneously reducing the education budget.

Let's be real clear. The stakes on FCAT are high.

In the commissioner's inflammatory speech, described by some Board members as 'insulting," "demeaning," and "dismissive of the message," he discussed "fear of so-called high stakes tests."

Do you think the back in 1995 they envisioned a day when one test would determine a school's funding, a child's retention, teacher's salaries, teacher's jobs, closing neighborhood schools, and attracting new businesses to the area? If that doesn't constitute "high stakes" to Commissioner Robinson, I'm afraid to hear what does.

The FCAT is one test taken in one day and is wildly over-weighted with severe punitive measures. Will a legislator craft a policy using FCAT to close the town library when 100% of children don't pass FCAT Reading? Where does it end?

FCAT evolved into a system of monetary consequences and stringent penalties. Somehow, children were forgotten along the way. The Board of Ed sacrificed creativity, imagination, and the joy of learning on the altar of the FCAT.

We've lost our way. This resolution is the path back.

Let's be real clear.The student is no longer the focus in our schools -- the FCAT is.

This well intended, yet misguided, accountability pendulum has swung so far the other way that it hinders learning. FCAT isn't even used as a diagnostic tool. Neither the student nor their teacher ever see the test again in order to learn areas of strengths and weaknesses. Imagine that? This all-powerful, supreme test is worthless to the students.

This FCAT-centric existence manufactured the need for extensive test prep, test-taking courses, FCAT Re-takes, test labs, pre-FCAT tests, etc. And, because so much is legislatively tied to the FCAT, there are strict security guidelines requiring housing of the tests, security, inventory, and classroom rules which add extraordinary costs to schools that are already cash-strapped. Combine that with increasing expenses for dedicated, secure FCAT computer labs, software migration, server upgrades, new technology to handle thousands of computers online at once and you have a budget and facilities nearly consumed by testing.

Commissioner Robinson stated in his provocative speech that the FCAT "investment" amounted to a mere $59 million annually. The test itself perhaps may cost a mere $59 million but that does not factor in all the materials, instruction guides, tutorials, instruction time for teachers, districts, software, hardware, scoring, test cheating companies, mailing the scores, substitute teachers required during FCAT, etc.

This white paper from the Central Florida Coalition of Public Schools may shed light on how much more of our tax dollars are siphoned by the incessant focus on this one test. When all is factored in, the number is easily ten times that which was cited.

Let's be real clear. If you're open minded to the citizens you serve, there are solutions.

Rather than say there's too much invested in this broken system to fix it, let's work on new solutions.

As a non-educator, I don't profess to have the answers. However, a feasible remedy might be to leave FCAT in place temporarily but strip all punitive measures from it. Use it as the diagnostic tool it was meant to be, until a proven, tested solution is developed. By doing so, you'll still measure students across the state and you'll capture a pure, more accurate snapshot of student knowledge.

Teachers wouldn't be forced to teach only what is on the test and can focus on the whole child and the whole subject.

Another possible solution might be to ask to use the NAEP test annually in different counties in Florida. This is a pure test which cannot be prepped. This, too, is an accurate snapshot and this test, in particular, measures where Florida stands with other states across the nation. The point is that there are interim solutions while qualified individuals devise a rational and meaningful child-centered accountability system.

Let's be real clear . Those opposing the over-reliance on FCAT far outnumber supporters for the FCAT status quo.

Prior to the FSBA Conference, a dozen counties in Florida unanimously embraced the National Resolution in six short weeks. Two of those counties represent the sixth and eleventh largest districts in the nation. That is significant by anyone's standard. Today there are fifteen Florida counties, the FSBA's membership endorsement of their resolution, and the FL PTA with a membership of 330,000 also endorsed it. Are these taxpayers all to be ignored?

Recently, the long-time, pro-accountability Education Commissioner of Texas, Robert Scott, asked Texas districts to sign onto this resolution calling standardized testing "a perversion of its intent." Today over 570 school districts in Texas signed onto this resolution opposing its over-reliance. Other states are jumping on board now thanks to organizations like Parents Across America and Fair Test.

To shrug our shoulders, ignore the counties where local control is supposed to prevail, to ignore the appeals of those in the trenches, to ignore the vast numbers of taxpayers who endorsed this resolution from PTAs, from elected officials, from Superintendents, from businesses and parents and grassroots organizations would be inexcusable.

And, to ignore this outcry and do nothing, would be a fatal mistake. Good luck to any politician who tries to run on a pro-FCAT platform in the months ahead because the parents out here, well, let's just say, we'll be "real clear" too with whom we organize to support.

 

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