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Learning is what's sacrificed for testing


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- If students fouled up the FCAT tests the way the state has, every school would be rated F. They still don't track an individual student's progress -- wait until next year, they say -- and now they're not counting the essays because the company to which the job was outsourced can't score them in time to be of use to the politicians.

The essays are, of course, the most important part, because they test critical thinking in ways that the multiple-guess questions do not.

"If they're not going to count them, I'm not going to answer them," said my 10th-grader.

"Yes, you will," said the school, "because we'll get the scores later to see how you are doing."

But that perfectly reasonable purpose is not the reason why so many Florida kids will spend this weekend throwing up over the week to come. The politicians have their own shabby motives. They want to be able to give bonuses to teachers at "A" schools and stigmatize those at "D" or "F" schools on the basis of a bogus test that does not even pretend to compare anything worth comparing. What they call "accountability" is Florida's most brazen swindle since the swamp peddlers.

The Florida Education Association had a splendid suggestion the other day: Take a "time out" from using the scores for an impartial study into such questions as to whether the FCAT is socio-economically biased, is measuring intelligence rather than achievement, and has any relevancy to the Sunshine State Standards that are supposed to inform every curriculum.

"There is strong evidence that the FCAT really measures what students bring to school, not what they learn there," says James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California, a testing expert who was contacted by the FEA.

It's too bad that this is the last you'll hear of the FEA's splendid idea.

* * *

Somebody should also study what is being sacrificed to the FCAT: Science, history, art, music, and everything else that makes the difference between a Homer Simpson and a whole person. Ask your kid's teachers. They won't say it where the principal might hear, but they might tell you.

Richard A. Pettigrew, a former House speaker who now chairs the board of Audubon of Florida, tells of approaching a South Florida school system with an offer to take its children to the brand-new nature center at Corkscrew Swamp. They would learn elementary biology and other sciences in the context of an outdoor experience "which kids find more relevant than trying to learn in a classroom," Pettigrew said.

They turned him down.

"They said, "Look, we don't offer anything in elementary school in science at this time because it's not tested for,' " he said. "They did say that in 2003 they are scheduled to start teaching some kind of science -- but until then, they're concentrating on reading, writing and arithmetic, which just shows you how skewed this kind of testing gets you, how far it gets you away from a holistic approach to education."

* * *

History must be getting the short shrift, too, and not just in Florida. How else to explain the poll showing that more Americans mentioned Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy as great presidents than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or George Washington?

Lincoln surely belongs at the top, along with Washington and FDR. But not Reagan -- it's too soon -- or Kennedy, whose luster is a Hollywood illusion. Americans can read, but in history we are functionally illiterate.

* * *

Speaking of presidents, nothing suspected about the Marc Rich pardon is as disgusting as what Bill Clinton admits: He was swayed by pressure from Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders. Their letters are on the Internet and make sickening reading, especially the parts about poor Rich having been "prevented" from visiting his dying daughter. Nothing stopped him but his own selfish cowardice. Nonetheless, he spent lavishly on good causes and so the letter-writers thought they had a debt to pay.

But they also had one to Jonathan Pollard, and you can read the letters without seeing a hint of that. Pollard, you'll recall, is the American naval analyst who's serving life in prison for giving Israel secrets that Caspar Weinberger -- speaking of pardons -- didn't want to share. It was wrong; spying is spying, whether it's for an ally or enemy. But no one else has ever gotten life for an ally, and Russia's spies often get less. Michael Walker is out after 15 years, one less than Pollard has already spent.

Rich has been living luxuriously in Switzerland while Pollard rots in the pen. Only Elie Wiesel, among all those who were lobbied, understood who was more important. Shame on Abraham Foxman and all the rest.

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