Davis presents his education platform

Published September 28, 2006

Democratic candidate for governor Jim Davis detailed a plan Wednesday to de-emphasize the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and change the way it is used to rank schools on a scale of A to F, a system he equates to a "political weapon."

"I don't want to get rid of the FCAT; I just don't think it's being used the right way. It's become the be-all, end-all," said Davis, who has criticized the test for months on the campaign trail.

Davis is attempting to seize on the public's generally negative view of the FCAT and draw a sharp contrast with his Republican opponent, Charlie Crist, who maintains faith in the current approach.

The Tampa congressman outlined the "Achieve Florida" proposal outside Miami Edison High School, which has received an F grade for five consecutive years. The state has required F schools to restructure, in some cases changing staff or curriculum.

Davis would scrap the A-through-F system of evaluating schools and replace it with a method that considers other factors, including graduation rates, class size and comments from parents and teachers.

"For too long, the politicians in Tallahassee have relied solely on the FCAT, a single, high-stakes standardized test," Davis says in his plan.

Under Davis' proposal, schools would be rated as "excellent," "achieving" or "needs improvement."

Davis also would end the practice of giving reward money to A schools or those that improve a grade. Instead, that money would go toward increasing teacher pay.

Jim Warford, a former K-12 chancellor who now heads the Florida Association of School Administrators, said Davis is right to look at the broader picture. "While the FCAT is an important core measure of a school's success, we recognize that high-performing schools have other significant qualities that are not captured," he said.

But Jeff Sadosky, a spokesman for the Republican Party, pointed to improving school performance and graduation rates under the current system and said Davis and the Democrats would reverse that trend.

He suggested Davis' plan to broaden the measures was a way to "muddy up" the system of accountability that rewards good school performance and penalizes poor school performance.

For months, Davis has vowed to make the FCAT a "diagnostic tool," "road map" or "checkup." On Wednesday, he provided details, saying his plan would give teachers and parents information they need to evaluate where a child needs help.

Davis also would speed up the time it takes to return test scores and would require that FCAT graders have a background in education or teaching.

His plan also is notable for some things it does not mention: the question of using the test to determine whether a student advances to fourth grade and whether it would be used as a requirement for graduation.

In an interview, Davis said he does not believe in social promotion but noted the current system does not just look at the FCAT for third-grade retention. He also thinks some sort of test is necessary for graduation.

Other parts of his proposal, which can be viewed on his Web site, jimdavis2006.com, call for "accountability task forces" for poorly performing schools. The panels would be made up of state and local education professionals and community leaders who would examine the school and issue a report within six months. He also would pair principals from good schools with those at underperforming ones.

Students attending a school judged as needing improvement for two consecutive years could transfer to another public school in the district, with the state providing more transportation money.

The state of Florida had been providing students in those situations with a voucher that could be used to pay for private school. That voucher program was declared unconstitutional, but many Republicans want to find a way to restore it. Davis opposes the use of vouchers.

Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report.