For FCAT extra credit, a new tune

Music educators are endorsing an idea to have a state test for music programs. "What is measured is valued."

Published November 28, 2005

Somehow, in a single 40-minute session last week, Pinellas music teacher Briana Foley managed to teach 25 fourth-graders about dynamics and decrescendo, tempo and accelerando, melody and ostinato - and do it without glazed eyes or incident, except for one girl's giggly tumble into a row of violin cases.

Even roll call was a lesson.

" "Lind-sey? " Foley sang.

" "I'm here ," came the response, in perfect pitch.

School children have been learning about music since Plato, but in Florida, those lessons may soon come with a new twist: an FCAT-like test.

Here's another twist: State officials aren't pushing the idea. Music teachers are.

"Do we need another FCAT? The answer to that is no," said Jeanne Reynolds, performing arts supervisor for the Pinellas school district and president-elect of the 4,000-member Florida Music Educators Association. "This is not an FCAT music test. But the reality is, what is measured is valued."

Faced with declining enrollment in music programs, the Florida Music Educators Association and the Florida School Music Association began developing a music test several years ago, just as the state began focusing more than ever on reading and math. In essence, they're going with the flow.

Last spring, the two groups piloted a test for fourth-graders. Earlier this month, they rolled it out before the state Board of Education. If the board signs off, fourth-graders statewide could take the test in spring 2007, with middle and high school tests coming later.

Only a handful of other states have a similar test. And the proposal in Florida is believed to be the only one crafted and promoted by music educators rather than bureaucrats.

Education Commissioner John Winn told the St. Petersburg Times there is a "high probability" that results will be factored into school grades, perhaps as bonus points for schools that score well.

The associations hope a music test will highlight what research shows - that there is a strong tie between art and music and academic success in other areas. One study showed students in art programs scored 59 points higher on the verbal SAT than peers. Other research suggests early music education improves concentration and math ability.

"The arts should be seen as a core area, not fluff and fringe," said Nancy Barlar, band director at Adams Middle School in Tampa.

And yet, music programs have been eroding for years.

In 1985, 85 percent of elementary school children took a music class. By 1999, that figure had dropped to 48 percent, according to Florida Department of Education figures. By 2003, the number had rebounded to 60 percent.

In middle school, the decline has been steadier, from 56 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2003.

Even in schools with music programs, the frequency of classes varies wildly. Some offer classes once a week; some, once a month.

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is part of the reason for the dropoff. State law mandates that students who score poorly on the reading portion of the FCAT must get additional instruction. That often comes at the expense of other classes.

"There's only so many hours in the day," Reynolds said.

The music associations say the first part of the fourth-grade test - a 30-minute exam that measures content-area knowledge and, like the FCAT, is based on state standards - is ready. Eventually, other parts will be developed to measure performance and composition.

As envisioned now, all fourth-graders would take it. Tests for eighth-graders and high-schoolers are in the works. In those grades, it's likely only students in band, chorus or other for-credit music programs would be tested.

Supporters say the main reason for the test is to show teachers where they fall short. They don't want penalties for students.

"It's not so much a "gotcha' kind of thing," said Foley, who teaches at Garrison-Jones Elementary in Dunedin. "It's more or less to provide information to me to see how I can adjust and refocus my teaching so they can excel."

Statements like that are music to the Board of Education's ears. When it comes to testing, the board and Gov. Jeb Bush often hear raspberries.

At the Nov.15 meeting, association representatives offered board members sample questions from the fourth-grade test. They heard an excerpt from The Sabre Dance and were asked to describe the tempo. (Answer: fast.)

"So many people pull back from tests, thinking, "We don't want to hurt ourselves with this,"' said board member Phoebe Raulerson, a former Okeechobee County superintendent. "And here you've come up with your own test."

"One of the things I love about it is, it doesn't have to be a state-controlled deal. They (the music associations) will set the bar," Winn said after the meeting. "It takes away this us-against-them."

The board will discuss the proposal again. For now, it's unclear whether the test will be voluntary for schools and how scores will figure into school grades.

One option: a bonus system, where schools with high scores get extra points toward their grade. "You aspire then to have a program that meets this professional bar," Winn said. But at the same time, the school is not sanctioned for falling short.

The idea of a state test for music will make some parents' eyes roll.

Even some music teachers wonder whether test pressure could sap fun from class, or force them to change how they teach.

Countryside High School band director Vince Parrulli said he leans in favor of the test, but "some of the directors in the county may not want to do that, because they have their own agendas."

Others like what they're hearing.

"You've got the FCAT now and it's kind of taken over," said Bryan Alspach, band director at Monroe Middle School in Tampa.

"If this says to people that we do our jobs, and do our jobs well, it can justify what we do."

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.