MAXWELL:  Too much importance placed on FCAT

8/1/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During my nearly 20 years as a college English and journalism teacher, I had a reputation for being tough, even mean.

In my newswriting course, for example, students had to publish three articles to earn the grade of A.

“Journalism is not about writing essays that I simply grade,” I used to tell students each meeting. “Journalism is about publishing. So get published if you want to pass this course.”

In ENC 2301, I required two major research papers, one using the style of the Modern Language Association, the other that of the American Psychological Association. Most students complained at the beginning of the term, but, at the end, the survivors were grateful because they had become competent researchers.

I give this background to establish that I believe in high standards and that I believe in teacher and student accountability as much as the next person, including our governor.

All that said, let me now say that our state, like many others, has gone test crazy. We have turned the public school system into a high-stakes test mill.

The centerpiece of the mill is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, administered for the first time three years ago in grades 4, 5, 8 and 10. This year, grades 3, 6, 7 and 9 also were tested. Tenth-graders have become the focus of attention because they must pass the FCAT to graduate. Sure, students have had to satisfy minimum standards to graduate for several years, but the senior class of 2003 is the first that must conquer the FCAT to graduate.

What is so bad about this requirement? After all, if I understand the setup, 10th-graders who fail the test the first time get six more chances to pass it. One big concern of many parents and teachers about the FCAT, a test of math and reading, is that many sophomores who fail it are stigmatized and never fully recover. I have received dozens of letters from parents testifying to that fact.

One mother said, for example, that her 10th-grader, who failed the test, “already feels like a loser and graduation is still two years away. He feels labeled. He’s a bright boy, but he now feels dumb. The bad part is that he doesn’t work as hard as he used to.”

A South Florida high school principal, who did not want his named used for publication, told me this: “Failing the FCAT and anxiety over failing it are creating the monster of self-fulfilling prophesy. I have students, 14- and 15-year-olds, who already feel like losers. They’re just kids, but they feel bad about themselves.”

Sarasota County’s teacher of the year, Jim Durest, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “I think we’re frustrating a lot of kids. . . . They feel ignorant; they feel incapable. I see the spirit in their eyes fizzling out at such a young age _ it’s ridiculous.”

And how do we help these children regain self-confidence? We toss them into remedial courses _ test-taking sessions _ where the destructive labeling really takes hold. Again, students are the big losers. They are not permitted to take fun, yes fun, electives.

I see no long-term good in this scenario, not for the children, not for the public school curriculum.

“FCAT cannibalizes the curriculum, diverts scarce resources, discriminates against those who don’t test well and turns schools into giant prep centers,” Gloria Pipkin, a former teacher, told the St. Petersburg Times recently. She leads the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform, a statewide group seeking to change the negative influences of the FCAT.

Hardened conservatives will scoff, but many children, some in third grade, literally become physically sick when hearing the letters FCAT, not to mention the anxiety experienced during constant practices.

And what about real learning? Yes, real learning. Teaching to a test is not real learning. Teaching kids to enjoy writing for its own sake has been tossed to the wind. Teaching them to think critically has become a joke, a cumbersome load that drags down scores on the FCAT _ the sole measure of a student’s academic achievement.

I am glad that FCAR has taken on FCAT. At least one rally has been held, and others are planned statewide. I do not agree that FCAT should be discarded. It should be one of the ways to assess student achievement. What about course grades and other evaluations? Do they mean nothing? What about the body of a student’s work during high school, middle school, elementary school?

Does a single test tell us everything about a child? Is it fair? Gov. Jeb Bush and his anti-public school supporters in Tallahassee and elsewhere in the state apparently think so.