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Sharpen that pencil, more FCAT is coming

Another version of the test, which is gradually elbowing other tests out of the way, will be conducted this week.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2000


Now that Florida's schoolchildren have put the stressful FCAT behind them for another year, it's time for . . . well, more FCAT.

Call it the mini-FCAT. Call it FCAT II. Some have called it the F-Kitty. Either way, this week most Florida schoolchildren will be back in testing mode all over again.

There are some perfectly good reasons for this odd case of testing deja vu. The state is in a transitional period, headed toward a greatly expanded testing program. More students are being tested this year, and they are taking more kinds of tests -- all under the umbrella acronym, FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test).

Whatever the reasons, it won't stop parents, teachers and students from scratching their heads and wondering about all those darn tests.

"The kids are still just recovering from the first one; it wasn't that long ago," said Steve Fernandez, a fifth-grade teacher at Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa.

In most districts, no sooner were the test booklets and answer sheets from the February FCAT picked up, when new test booklets for the March version were dropped off. School officials have been trying to keep parents informed on what must seem like a revolving door of tests.

"I sent another flier home today (Wednesday)," said Len Kizner, principal at Bay Vista Fundamental School in St. Petersburg. "We've tried to set the stage, and let people know what's happening and why it's happening. But people still ask about it: "Didn't we just do this a couple of weeks ago?' "

What can get lost in the flurry of test booklets and answer sheets is this: Despite how it seems, the testing burden on individual children is not supposed to increase.

True, more children are being tested; the FCAT used to cover just four grade levels (4, 5, 8 and 10), and now it covers grades 3 through 10. And true, this will be a tough week of testing (third-graders, for instance, will get 90 minutes of testing today, 50 minutes Tuesday, two 45-minute sessions Wednesday and 50 more minutes Thursday).

But the overall burden on an individual child is not supposed to increase. All along, the plan has been that the FCAT would expand as the number of other tests decreased. In effect, the FCAT has become the state test, elbowing out just about everything else.

Remember the GTAT (Grade Ten Assessment Test)? It was eliminated in 1996. Remember the HSCT (High School Competency Test)? It will be eliminated in a couple of years. Remember the CTBS (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills) and the Stanford Achievement Test? Eliminated this year; replaced by the FCAT.

Even the Florida Writes test has been brought under the FCAT umbrella.

"The FCAT has expanded, but once we eliminated the Stanford, the testing burden is about the same," said John Hilderbrand, testing director for the Hillsborough County schools.

"It looks like an added burden because it's called the same thing; you have the FCAT, and then you have the FCAT again," said Alex Epanchin, director of testing for Pinellas County. "But we might even have less testing now. The CTBS took a long time; (there were) lots of subtests."

It might be little consolation for test-weary kids, but this week's tests should not be as stressful as last month's FCAT. Last month's test was the big, high-stakes FCAT -- the one that determines a school's A through F grade, the one that determines who gets vouchers and who gets extra money from the state.

So, what is left? And why are students being tested again this week?

Two kinds of tests are being taken this week. One is a dry run for next year, known as a field test. The results will not count. Before expanding it to include grades 3, 6, 7 and 9, the state wants to try out a short version of the test to see if they're on track for next year when the test will count.

The other kind of test is essentially a multiple-choice test that will do the one thing the traditional FCAT cannot: provide a basis for comparing Florida students with their peers around the nation.

The traditional FCAT is a Florida test for Florida students only. Results tell us how our children are doing compared with other Florida students. It will not tell us how we compare with Texas or California.

As recently as last year, school districts gave tests that made national comparisons possible -- the CTBS in Pinellas, the Stanford in Pasco and Hillsborough. But different districts used different tests. Now those tests have been all but eliminated, and the FCAT has expanded to fill the gap.

The result is a state test that casts an enormous shadow over the Florida classroom, and takes a chunk out of class time in February and March.

At Cahoon Elementary in Tampa, there is a big sign on the wall outside the media center that states: "Good Luck on the FCAT." After the February FCAT, the sign stayed up, with a slight bit of editing.

"We just added the word "mini' before the word "FCAT,' " said Cahoon principal Beverly Tidwell. Now it states: "Good luck on the mini-FCAT."

"It's been up there for a while. But we'll be able to take it down pretty soon."

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