The FCAT showdown
Gov. Jeb Bush says he won't back down from high academic standards in Florida public schools, but his high-noon bravado misses the point. His goals are not at issue. His methods are.
The goals are unassailable: Every student who graduates from high school should have a mastery of basic reading, writing and mathematics skills; every third-grader needs to know how to read. The problem is in how Bush chooses to measure these skills. He has decided that one state-administered standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is the only legitimate way to measure success. He has fought and minimized any alternatives, and he and his education commissioner, Jim Horne, have dismissed criticism as a form of education backsliding.
"This accountability system has a lot of bite to it," says Horne. "But the governor and I are strong on this. We're not backing up."
The "bite," in this case, is the prospect that as many as 12,000 high school seniors and 50,000 third-graders could pay a painful price this spring for not passing the FCAT. The seniors who fail the test won't get a diploma, and the third-graders won't be promoted. Unlike the grades that are assigned to schools based on FCAT results, this policy will change the lives of young people. Just ask any of the seniors who might complete 13 years of schooling only to find there is no diploma at the end.
One such student is Bani Tufekcic, a Bosnian-born honors student who moved to America four years ago. Tufekcic passed the math section his first try, but he has struggled with reading. He told a reporter he hopes to study law enforcement at St. Petersburg College, but he can't get in without a diploma. "I try not to think about it too much, but I am worried about it," he said. "If I don't pass, almost a whole year of college will go away from me."
The Tufekcic story is but one of thousands, failures that could be dismissed as the price of setting higher standards if they weren't so detached from educational reality. What purpose is served by denying a diploma in a case such as Tufekcic's? Why is one test so sacrosanct that nothing else in a student's educational career can overcome it?
To date, Bush and Horne have avoided meaningful debate by simply talking tough. But the severity of the consequences for students is only part of the equation. If the FCAT itself produces a skewed or incomplete measure of a student's ability, then any consequence that flows from it is unsupportable.
Nearly one-third of third-graders failed the reading portion last year. Is it conceivable that this highly structured, high-stakes exam for 9-year-olds may be producing some false results? Is it possible that some failed simply because they were feeling ill on the day the test was administered? Do we really want to hold back one-third of our third-graders for failing to meet state bureaucrats' standards on a single test? Some high school seniors are failing the FCAT but scoring high enough on their SATs to be admitted to college. Is it possible that the FCAT is improperly calibrated as an exit exam?
These questions deserve fair scrutiny but won't receive it from Horne or Bush. Instead, they toured the state Monday, holding press conferences to announce a summer remedial reading program for which there is no identified money and no coordinated plan. Their public relations excursion is aimed primarily at pre-empting state lawmakers, some of whom are busy filing bills trying to make the governor listen to reason. But Bush refuses to consider whether the FCAT methodology may be flawed, and he won't trust educators to judge the abilities of their own students.
In this battle over standards, thousands of students with respectable school careers and promise in their young lives may be punished for failing one test. In Florida, that's what passes for accountability.
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