tampabay.com

FCAT must work for system to work

By JIM WARFORD Special to the Times
Published May 28, 2007


The release of the FCAT results for this year raised questions so serious that a growing number of superintendents, district testing experts and others are calling for an independent review after the DOE admitted mistakes were made this year. Because of the increasingly high stakes for all involved, the simmering battle over testing and accountability in our schools has returned to the boiling point.

Questions about this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test will soon give rise to questions about the future of school accountability itself. The first thing to understand is this: The accountability war in our public schools is over. Accountability won. I represent more than 10, 000 Florida public school leaders and no one is questioning the importance of holding public schools accountable for what students learn.

Jeb Bush deserves much of the credit. During his first term as governor, his A+ Education Plan gave the state's education system a much-needed wake-up call. But it was also a bitter and angry time, creating distrust on all sides. Today, teachers and principals do not question the need for real accountability in our schools. In truth, they never did, only how we should keep the score.

Schools have become data-driven like never before. They are constantly striving for continuous improvement, knowing they must be better every year. This intense focus has produced some encouraging results. National data show that during the past decade, no state in the nation has produced greater gains in their elementary schools than has Florida. But fear and frustration remain high in our schools and threaten to slow our progress.

Jeb Bush won the accountability wars. But it will be left to Gov. Charlie Crist to win the peace. To do so, he must do something Bush was unable to do. He must win the hearts and minds of our public school leaders and teachers by giving them a voice. In the end, they are the only people who can continue to improve our schools. Since we now expect them to continuously improve every year, is it not reasonable to expect the same of our state's accountability system?

It is critical we not lose the gains we've made. To preserve our progress, we should carefully examine the current system to see what is working and what is not. Then a consensus must be reached by all stakeholders about where we go from here. There are real concerns about depending upon one test on one day. How can it be more directly tied to what teachers do in their classrooms and have it value measures we don't include today?

I embraced accountability early on - not because I believed our public schools were failing, but because I believe that we educate more students today to a higher standard than ever before. Accountability is the best way to prove it.

The problem is this. While it's true that our schools are improving more than ever, the world outside is changing even faster. The economic realities of Thomas Friedman's bestseller The World Is Flat demand that we remain committed to accountability. But I do not believe this can be done without listening to the professionals in our schools.

We often forget that accountability, and the tools to measure it, were originally created by public school leaders because they were passionately committed to the belief that all children can learn. They wanted to help identify those students most at risk and in need of extra help.

However, accountability was soon seized upon by critics as a way to prove that public schools are failing and should be abandoned. The results are in: They were wrong!

The irony is that accountability data show school leaders will find a way to reach whatever goal is set for them. Over time, the school grades improve even as we raise the bar. This demonstrates that what gets measured gets done. But it also shows we should take great care in what we measure.

Florida's FCAT data clearly show our public schools have improved, at least on the only measures that they were told count, reading and math. The problem is, as principals and teachers know, there are many other important things schools do that no longer seem to count. Things like civics, art, music and PE.

Yes, this year's FCAT results raise many questions. But the biggest question of all is: Where do we go from here?

Jim Warford is a former K-12 chancellor at the Florida Department of Education. He is executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators.