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Hives fade along with anxiety of FCAT

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002

NORTHDALE -- It's over now. The three-day trial by fire that is the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test ended Wednesday for students throughout the county and at A-rated Claywell Elementary.

If the school is to retain that lofty letter grade, its students needed to once again post high marks on the state-mandated series of reading, writing and arithmetic exams. And you had better believe those 10-year-olds knew what was at stake.

The state uses FCAT scores to grade schools. "A" schools get money, and lots of it. "F" schools get a visit to the woodshed.

So how did our children prepare for a test many educators see as an adversary that must be vanquished?

Their teachers literally worked day and night to make sure their students know and understand the material. That's what Claywell fourth-grade teacher Vicki Anderson did.

"She works 24 hours a day teaching those kids," said Claywell administrator Donna Fischbach. "It's not just a 7:30 to 3 day they put in. They work up into the night."

It is not uncommon, Fischbach said, for Anderson to send her e-mails with all sorts of useful information she's just learned about FCAT preparation. The e-mails are often sent between midnight and 1 a.m.

"With FCAT, it starts the first day they walk into this room," said Anderson, a veteran elementary schoolteacher who is popular with rising third-graders.

"My kids start with their noses to the grindstone in August." Anderson is a big believer in reading. She says children build a foundation in reading for all of the things they will learn down the line. And she encourages creative, descriptive writing. She tests all of her students at the beginning of the year on their math skills, so she'll know who needs what come test time in March. And she clues her students in to test-taking strategies that will help them get used to timed exams and multiple choice bubble sheets.

Along the way, she teaches a new student from Africa how to speak English and to read on a third-grade level in a matter of months. Every student in Anderson's class knew, long before the FCATs commenced on Monday, what was expected of them.

"I tell them what's required, and "can't' doesn't live in here."

Those are the stakes FCAT has imposed on the schools our kids go to. "Can't" doesn't cut it and the children know that.

"FCAT is tough on the kids and the teachers both," said Pat Boudreau, a parent volunteer at Claywell. "But the fourth-graders here are really prepared."

What does the state expect those fourth-graders to know? Well, teachers are issued 12 pages of "grade level expectations" for language arts and math, spelled out in minute form. After awhile, all those expectations begin to take their toll on the kids.

In our home, it was the hives.

That's how we knew it was time to take the anxiety-inducing, all-important FCAT tests. My fifth-grader woke up Monday morning with hives.

That's how serious FCAT has become to our children. It can result in itchy skin.

Oh, and there was the night-before cram course on fractions and percentages that, my fifth-grader informed, should have been learned in the fourth-grade. Maybe that's what brought on the hives.

I slathered her in Cortaid, canceled the dental cleaning I'd errantly scheduled two months earlier, and tried to put her mind at ease.

"Do your best," I encouraged her. She pretty much always does her best, but this week it counted.

See, in recent years the state has decided to "improve" education by employing strict "accountability." Hence, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was born. Accountability is supposed to be a good thing. It's supposed to indicate that everyone is doing their jobs. That principals are making good administrative decisions, that teachers are teaching, and that students are learning everything under the sun.

Anderson said she wishes she had more time with her students before their talents were held up to the harsh light of inspection. She said she'd like to have them in her classroom until 4:30 p.m. every day, instead of the 2:15 dismissal time.

She wishes the state wouldn't come calling with its test until April or May so she could have nine more weeks of honing their skills. But like every other teacher in the county, Anderson and her students and their school will soon be judged on how everyone did on the FCAT.

And what, exactly, will that tell us? Well, a story in Monday's paper said some kids who do well will get cash prizes and limo rides. Teachers get to keep their jobs.

Top-performing schools get extra money that could be better used at not-so-top performing schools.

Around here, we get hives.

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