Less politics, more basics

A Times Editorial
Published February 25, 2007

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test didn't exist when little Charlie Crist attended Bay Vista Elementary in St. Petersburg some four decades ago, but he is proud as governor to see the A grade his school now receives. He says he also is pained by the way the grading system has pitted politicians against teachers, and he is in a position to change that.

Crist, who grew up in Florida public schools and universities, can bring an element to the FCAT accountability system that has been missing in the eight years since its inception. He can invite a teacher's point of view.

The grading system, as reported in today's installment of For a Better Florida, was so driven by the political agenda of Gov. Jeb Bush that it became sacrosanct before the ink was dry. Those who dared question the smallest inconsistencies were branded as enemies of reform and defenders of the status quo.

In the real world of education, though, no one standardized test can be used for so many different purposes and never be wrong. Crist need only look at Bay Vista to appreciate some of the complexities. In 1997, before the school converted to a fundamental program, its students scored in the 48th percentile on a national skills test. The next year, after admitting only students with involved parents, Bay Vista soared to the 82nd percentile.

The point is that Bay Vista, a fine school, benefits from screening the students who get in. The same is true of schools across Florida that admit students based on high test scores, I.Q., or grades. Not surprisingly, those students do well on the FCAT. Oddly, though, the state then awards those schools bonuses while typically denying the same to schools whose students aren't smart enough to attend the magnets.

Does that make common sense?

Crist, who says he wants to "tweak" the FCAT accountability system, can begin with some basics:


STUDENTS COME FIRST: The FCAT is geared at measuring progress in reading, math, writing and science. Yet the test is administered more than two months before school ends, and most students and teachers never know what the students got wrong. How does that help them improve?


JUDGING TEACHERS: FCAT does an adequate job assessing the students' progress, but the state uses the results primarily to assess teachers. This leads to skewed results, in part, because: 1.) two-thirds of teachers don't teach students or subjects tested by FCAT; 2.) most students, with the exception of third and 10th grades, have no incentive to do well; 3.) a teacher's hard work isn't always reflected in test scores.


COMPETING BONUSES: The School Recognition Program hands out about $155-million a year that generally goes to reward teachers with bonuses. But it uses the FCAT grading formula, even though lawmakers now have rejected that formula in the granting of teacher performance pay. How can the state defend both?

Crist is in a position to begin matching the intent of school reform with the actual practice, and he will find that there is considerably more common ground with teachers than state bureaucrats have suggested. The good teachers don't want to get rid of the FCAT; they merely want it used in a more logical and less punitive way.