Some 9-year-olds are promoted to fourth grade without really knowing how to read, and some 18-year-olds are handed high school diplomas who don't deserve them. But Florida's easy fix, a standardized exit test, treats schoolwork as little more than rehearsal. If students don't shine in their one big performance, they get the hook.
That's about to happen to thousands of students this spring, as the state enforces a new testing law. Seniors who fail the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test won't get a diploma, and third-graders who fail FCAT reading won't be promoted. Forget about the work they did the other 179 school days -- or 13 school years.
This is the ultimate in high-stakes testing. Only 17 other states withhold diplomas from students who don't pass a state-administered test, and the implications are enormous. A student who has completed all the course work for graduation instead receives a "certificate of completion," which is not accepted by colleges and is often rejected by community colleges, the military and other employers. Third-grade students will be held back. The law does allow them to be promoted for "good cause," but the state has defined the term narrowly and requires that each be approved by a county's school board and reported to the state Board of Education.
One clear result, at least in the short-term, will be that fewer seniors will graduate and more third-graders will fail. John Winn, Florida's deputy secretary of education, says that's not necessarily bad: "Obviously the FCAT is a more rigorous test, so we would expect students would have to work harder. . . . That's what happens when you raise standards."
Winn makes a fair point, except that a growing body of research shows no correlation between high-stakes testing and other indicators of academic performance. In fact, a newly released study of 27 states with high-stakes testing reports that two-thirds of them experienced declines in other indicators, such as SATs, ACTs, Advanced Placement tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The study, by Arizona State University researchers, is the largest of its kind.
"The most perverse problem with high-stakes tests," Eva Baker, a testing expert at UCLA told the New York Times, "is that they have become a substitute for the curriculum instead of simply a measure of it."
There is also the unfortunate subject of testing error. As President Bush promotes high-stakes testing in all states, the companies that devise and grade standardized tests are being overwhelmed with business. NCS Pearson, which has a three-year, $105-million contract in Florida, already has been forced to admit that it lost tests in Hillsborough and Sarasota counties. In Minnesota, it has offered a $7-million settlement to 8,000 students who were wrongly failed when they actually had passed.
This spring, because of FCAT, some third-graders will be left behind, and some seniors will be told that 13 years' worth of schoolwork is not enough. That may or may not be a deserving fate for each of those students. The problem is not that Florida requires students to pass standardized tests, but that it uses one test as the sole measure of success.
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