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    A Times Editorial

    Arrogance in education

    The state has organized its educational policy around the results of one standardized test, and then has set itself up as the only gauge of public school performance.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 16, 2002

    With the release of the fourth round of school grades, Gov. Jeb Bush can assuredly claim he has brought a sense of urgency to Florida public education. What is less certain is whether the panic is to a good purpose.

    In these four years, after all, the state has measured schools in four distinctly different ways. It at first used test results from one grade level to make assumptions about an entire school. It then added new tests, changed the standards for passing, decided some students' scores shouldn't count, didn't grade more strenuous performance questions one year and then counted them the next. It even measured test results retroactively in the first year by way of deciding that two Escambia County schools were sufficiently failing to offer private vouchers to their students.

    The one constant is that Florida has organized its educational policy around the results of one standardized test, taken once a year in grades 3 to 10, and that Bush is so certain of its validity that he is willing to pass judgment on the efforts of every single school and teacher in the state. Do good on the test? You're a winner. Do bad on the test? You're a failure.

    This crude, and decidedly political, methodology produces predictable results.

    In Pinellas, for example, Gulfport Elementary faces unique challenges, with three-fourths of its students in poverty and one of every five missing more than four weeks of school each year. As a result, Gulfport has added 30 days to its school calendar and has begun to phase in a Montessori style of teaching and cooperative learning. For its efforts, Gulfport this year received an F. In Miami-Dade, Miami Edison High serves a large number of Haitian students. One in three students misses more than four weeks of school, and one in four can't even speak English. For its efforts: two Fs and school vouchers. By contrast, Stanton College Preparatory School in Duval, which accepts only students with high test scores and even higher academic ambitions, received an A.

    As skewed as they are, the grades do serve the purpose of identifying schools with low-performing students. That information would be useful if Bush weren't so intent on making a political statement.

    Instead, the governor is getting ready to hand out $113-million to A schools (and others judged as improving) that don't need the money as much as the 68 F schools that are told to compete for a portion of $11-million in grant money that was already budgeted for reading programs. Instead, he is offering vouchers to as many as 8,900 students at 10 heavily scrutinized public schools so they might attend private schools about which the state knows nothing. Instead, he is putting together a Tallahassee-based "Assistance-Plus" state education team that will sweep into each county with F schools and identify problems and prescribe solutions. For the 10 schools targeted for vouchers, Education Secretary Jim Horne promises to "assess the strengths and deficiencies of each" and provide a full assessment plan within seven days. Seven days.

    Horne, an accountant and former state senator, displays such educational certitude that he told a press conference "we've taken the temperature and now we have to give quick-acting medicine" and a Tampa Tribune reporter that the critics "will not change our course of action." One of those critics, Pinellas School Board member Lee Benjamin, reacted Thursday at a Florida School Boards Association conference.

    "I'm absolutely insulted," said Benjamin, a career educator and a Republican. "What gives you the arrogance to think you have the answers?"

    Leave aside the controversial vouchers or the misguided bonus money or even the state's stinginess with school spending and the declining competitiveness of teachers' pay. The A+

    Plan on which Bush is now hoping to stake his re-election may suffer most from the attribute that Benjamin described. At its core, A+

    is arrogant. It trusts no one but the state to assess how well schools are performing -- not parents, not teachers, not principals, not superintendents. And it trusts no one but the state to figure out how to help them improve. Jeb Bush has put himself in the position of judging whether Gulfport Elementary teachers are doing a job worth applauding or condemning, and he can yank their students and their jobs if he sees fit.

    The point here is not that standardized testing is wrong or that the standards they represent lack critical importance. The point is that the tool Florida is using is so blunt as to call into question the objective.

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