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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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FCAT tests us; so what?
It's easy to hate the FCAT, but its results lay bare some inconvenient truths in our classrooms.
By RON MATUS
Published June 3, 2007
A lot of people blame the FCAT. I blame Mr. Miles.
In the summer after 10th grade, Mr. Miles, my driver's ed teacher, gave me the worst grade I ever got in high school.
Every day in class, we'd watch minifilms on safe driving and get quizzed along the way. Real tough questions like: "When approaching a yellow light at an intersection, you should: A slow down, (B) mash the gas, (C) pretend like you didn't see it, or (D) all of the above."
Our desks had little buttons built into them - marked A, B, C and D - and you'd answer by pressing them. The button-gizmo recorded your answers and tallied your score.
Except my button-gizmo (I say "my" gizmo because we had assigned seats) was broken. Every day, we'd go over the answers and I might have one or two wrong, which should have meant a 90 or a 95. But my gizmo kept giving me 60s and 70s.
I complained to Mr. Miles, but he told me through lips half paralyzed by a stroke that the test apparatus wasn't the problem. So day after day, I watched, helplessly, while my test scores got botched.
The test wasn't the problem. The machinery that graded it was at fault. As was the teacher's unwillingness to consider, let alone find, a fix.
I bring up my whiny little story reluctantly, and only to ease into an unpopular point: As flawed as it is, standardized testing has its place. The dreaded FCAT and other standardized tests aren't perfect. But neither are teachers. And as much as I hate to say it, there's a lot of nagging evidence to suggest that in some ways, standardized tests are better measures of student learning.
I know, I know. I hear the boos. What kind of idiot would make a point like that now? After all, the state Department of Education had just admitted it bungled 200, 000 third-grade reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The DOE flub is catastrophic. Parents are upset. Teachers are angry. Even Republican lawmakers - perhaps the last group of FCAT die-hards left on the peninsula - want answers. I'm fairly certain we'll find out whether an honest mistake or gross negligence is at the root of the problem. And who knows? Maybe the rising conspiracy theory - that former Gov. Jeb Bush rigged the results - isn't so wackadoo after all.
But even then, we should keep the mess in context.
Without standardized tests, teachers would be the sole judges of whether students are up to snuff, and there would be no system to measure one teacher's grades against another's.
Earlier this year, the National Assessment Governing Board, a well-respected bipartisan group, put out two reports on the same day. One showed the reading abilities of high school seniors had steadily and significantly declined in the last 15 years, at least according to a standardized test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which many education experts, liberal and conservative, consider a good measure of real learning. The second showed high school seniors were taking more rigorous courses than ever before - at least on paper - and that over the same period of time, their average GPAs had risen a third of a letter grade, to an eyelash shy of a B.
How could that be?
Here's one possibility: Too many teachers give students grades they don't deserve.
Anecdotal evidence isn't hard to find.
A complicated 'B'
In his recent series about being a professor at Stillman College in Alabama, St. Petersburg Times columnist and editorial board member Bill Maxwell noted example after example of ill-prepared students - students who for all intents and purposes couldn't write, who didn't hesitate to insult him in class and who refused to buy textbooks even though they had vouchers to cover the cost. You have to ask: How did students like this get a high school diploma?
Not long ago, a Pinellas County teacher I like and respect was telling me about a student in his remedial reading class, a well-mannered 17-year-old who had failed ninth grade twice but came back for a third try. The kid was reading at an elementary-school level and not making progress. And yet, he was on the honor roll.
The teacher gave the kid a B for trying. He said he didn't want to discourage him.
"It's complicated, " he said.
I sometimes wonder why we so reflexively attach the term "high-stakes" to the FCAT, but not to other tests. Is the SAT not high stakes? Surely it is - SAT scores all but dictate which colleges will open their doors to which students - but critics don't regularly issue fatwas denouncing it.
Are the tests that classroom teachers use not high stakes? Surely they are: Grades, credits, diplomas and dreams rise and fall on them. Yet I've never seen a single story on how much time and effort the average teacher puts into making those tests, or what controls are in place to make sure they're accurate, consistent and reliable.
Obviously, the system of checks and balances for making and scoring the FCAT (a system that includes a bunch of classroom teachers) isn't good enough. It has to be better. Maybe even way better. But at least there's a backstop of some kind.
A test of basic skills
What checks and balances ensure teachers' grades are accurate?
In my case, the botched quizzes both mattered and didn't. On the one hand, they dragged down my overall grade in driver's ed to a B, which is kind of funny. (Who gets a B in driver's ed?! Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High?!) But truth be told (and not even my wife knew until this week) that B was the only grade short of an A I got in high school. I graduated 0.03 points away from being valedictorian. And since the val was not only smart as all get out but our prom queen, I kept the bellyaching to myself.
Did it matter? I still went to the college of my choice. I still got scholarships, which I desperately needed.
For many kids - especially poor and minority kids - the consequences of inaccurate grades are much more dire. Doesn't it mean, ultimately, that they won't get the help they need and deserve?
At many high schools in Florida, it's not uncommon for two-thirds of all ninth- and 10th-graders to flunk the FCAT in reading. Remember: This is a basic skills test. And yet, only a small percentage of those students are flunked by their teachers. In other words, they can't read on a high school level, yet they continue to pass their classes on a steady track to a high school diploma.
But it must be the FCAT that's wrong, right?
Sure, you can debate how the FCAT is used as a grading tool for schools and for students. But that's a different debate than hating the FCAT purely as a test of basic skills. Without the FCAT, what measure do you really have?
I've sat in on classes with high school kids who didn't pass the FCAT. I wasn't surprised. I've read their essays. And as a reporter, I paid especially close attention when they read out loud, often stumbling and slow. (After all, the future of the newspaper industry depends on kids learning to read.)
I wish everybody who hates the FCAT could do the same.
That way, they could hear for themselves whether or not the FCAT is far off the mark.