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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida legislators have a bad habit of acting as if they think they're at the head of the class.
All state employees are fingerprinted. Not legislators. Most state employees pay for their health insurance. Not legislators. There is random drug-testing, but not for legislators. They have special auto tags (read: license to speed) and a sweetheart pension deal, too.
Wouldn't you say the time has come for some parity with the public?
And what better place to start than with the most important test they have ever prescribed for others?
Yes, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The all-powerful, all-knowing, all-everything FCAT.
They should have to take it as candidates and, once elected, on an annual basis.
After all, it's not such heavy lifting. If 10th-graders can pass it, surely legislators can. Most even have college degrees.
We may need a constitutional amendment to require this. But there's no reason why they couldn't do it voluntarily right away.
Think of the possibilities, starting with the historic rivalry between the House and Senate. It would be a matter of record, rather than of braggadocio, which is smarter.
Meanwhile, committees could compete for letter grades, striving to be "A" rather than "B," "C," or -- God forbid! -- "D" and "F" committees.
"A" and "B" committees would get more money for staff and expenses. Lobbyists whose bills are assigned to committees that have failed for two years out of the prior four would be entitled to vouchers worth a direct trip to the House or Senate calendar.
Individual legislators would not have to disclose their FCAT scores. Unless, of course, they wanted to. But they would have to pass before running for re-election or higher office.
To be sure, the Senate president and House speaker would need access to the scores to know whether to assign members to committees that do heavy lifting or to those that might be described as remedial.
Appropriations, for example, would deserve people who are good at math. Judiciary, and Ethics and Elections would put a higher premium on verbal skills. When science is added to the FCAT, the Natural Resources Committee would have a special interest in members who score well on that.
This idea did not originate with me. I have pirated it with the creator's consent.
My inspiration owes to Jim Bax, who happens to know a great deal about testing. The former head of state social service agencies in Florida and Idaho, he later ran a large Florida professional testing business and now teaches at Florida State University. Having made a fortune from standardized testing, Bax has also warned frequently against relying too much on it.
So I wonder whether he was completely serious in proposing it for politicians.
But he had serious points to make.
"Realize the limitations of the FCAT before your Editorial Board uses it to measure the competency of potential public office holders," he wrote in our exchange of e-mails. "Remember, the FCAT does not measure character, wisdom, logic or creative thinking. It does not measure knowledge of geography, history, humanities, science or current events such as 9/11 or the stock market plunge. Certainly one could do well on the FCAT and know nothing whatsoever about the Florida Constitution, government processes, logic and human nature."
(I am sure he is right about that. Even legislators with advanced college degrees often display thorough ignorance of the Constitution, the government, logic and human nature.)
"The second important consideration," Bax wrote, "is to remember that people who seek public office deserve consideration. They may have test anxiety. Or they simply may not be good test takers. Perhaps they were stressed out by taking tests when they were kids. Perhaps some of them excelled by applying skills and abilities that tests don't measure."
Moreover, he cautioned, "When you reward those who do well, you discourage those who don't do as well. In my teaching, I have always found that students live up to expectations. . . . Success breeds success and failure breeds failure. So if you publish the results, half will feel that they are smarter than the others, gain self confidence and act smarter. The other half will think they are stupid and go out and do stupid things."
The solution, he said, is to "use the tests as all good tests should be used . . . as a diagnostic tool to determine what skills need improvement. Offer remedial classes so that if elected the office holders can then better read the bills they are voting on and better balance the budget. Use the individual results to improve individual performance. Reward gain."
If the Legislature had tried the FCAT first on itself, would it now be the life-or-death standard for school kids and schools?
I think we know the answer.