True test for FCAT
By Times staff writers
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001
Donna King talks about FCAT a fair bit in class. Probably too much, the way she figures it.
"I had a poor little kindergartener all stressed out. He asked his mom, "When am I going to have to take FCAT?' "
King is the only teacher in the Duette School, a one-room, one-teacher school in northeast Manatee County. For many students, "Miss Donna" is the only teacher they have known. What they know of reading and math -- and of FCAT -- they know from her.
"A kindergartener shouldn't be worried about such things," said King. "I decided not to talk about it as much."
In Florida it's hard not to talk about that test with the funny name. Especially this time of year. Scores just came out. Grades are coming soon.
What some people are saying is predictable. Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Commissioner Charlie Crist declared the program a success. Scores are rising. Accountability works. Just as predictable, the teachers union representative trashed the very idea of grading schools based on a test.
But what about the teachers? They're the ones in the classrooms, in the best position to observe how FCAT has changed the way they teach, for better or for worse.
Last week, the St. Petersburg Times talked with 50 public school teachers around the state about FCAT. Some hate it. They joke that FCAT is the newest four-letter word that starts with F.
Others think the test is great, saying it's about time the state got serious about holding kids to standards.
A surprising number even called for (gasp!) more testing. If you're going to do it, they say, at least do it right.
* * *
"I'm really trying to think. Is there anything I like about it? There's nothing, really, and I'm a Republican." -- JEAN McNARY, social studies, Zephyrhills High School in Pasco County, 24 years of experience.
"Compared to the old bubble kind of test, I do like the FCAT. They have to write their reasons for their answers and explain their thinking. It requires higher-order thinking." -- FREDA ABERCROMBIE, language arts, Weightman Middle School, Wesley Chapel in Pasco County, 10 years of experience.
"Just getting to know the kids, FCAT hampers that a lot. We don't have the individual rapport with the kids because we're too busy shoving FCAT down their throats." -- IRENE HUPP, eighth-grade language arts, Crystal River Middle School, 23 years of experience.
* * *
In Penny Knight's 10th-grade honors English classes, she normally covers four novels. This year, she will only touch on the fourth -- Huckleberry Finn -- because so much time has been spent practicing for the reading and writing portions of FCAT.
"We're neglecting legitimate curriculum for this test. That makes me sad," said Knight, the English department chairwoman at Pinellas Park High School, with 20 years of teaching. "There are lots of things that are just having to go untaught. We have to focus on this because the school's reputation is based on this. A lot is at stake on this test."
With the Russian novel A Hero of Our Time, Knight used to divide the class into five groups -- one for each chapter -- and have each group design a mural about the chapter and present it to the class. It was a fun way to make sure the students understood the book.
But the mural project took a full week, and Knight doesn't have a week to give.
"They're having a final test this year because I don't have time to give to that weeklong project. It makes me sad. Those are the enrichment kinds of things that are going to have to go the way of FCAT testing. I regret it because that's one of the memorable things that students remember about classes."
Turning up the pressure
Now teachers know that the school, the district and the state are counting on them -- and the world is looking over the teachers' shoulders. The teachers are feeling it -- and so are many of the kids.
* * *
"There is pressure all the way down into the second grade." -- LINDA CALDWELL, sixth-grade English and writing, Lecanto Middle School in Citrus County, 30 years of experience.
"I think it starts at the state level with the grading system. And it comes to the counties because they want a good showing. And the principals know it affects funding. And the teachers pass that on to the students. By the time they get to the test they are ready to pull their hair out." -- DIANNE SHRIEVES, English, Central High School in Brooksville, 28 years of experience.
"You have a lot of kids actually cry. How are they going to do well on a test if they are upset about it?" -- NORMA SAMPSON, third-grade reading teacher, Eastside Elementary School in Brooksville, 27 years of experience.
"I have to sign my name next to theirs for reading and math and that's scary. I try to make sure that they learn what I teach, but I can't control what they do on the test. They're stressed out, but it's a different world today. We practiced stretching exercises and breathing exercises to help them reduce the stress. It's a sign of the times."- CHRISTINE KOSTRZEWA, Northwest Elementary School in Hudson.
* * *
Wednesday was an intense day at Franklin Middle School in Tampa, a school fighting to move up the state's grading list after two years of earning D's. The day after the state released standardized test scores, eighth-grade language arts teacher Becky Dressler went over the school's composite writing scores with her class. She had not received individual student scores.
The writing test is scored on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 the highest and 3 required to pass. Dressler, who has been teaching for 31 years, noted that 3 percent of the eighth-graders at the school had made less than a 3.
"They were all sweating it. "Who didn't pass? I bet it was me. I bet it was me. I'm not going to get to the ninth grade."'
* * *
Sara Dubbeld, an 11th-grade English teacher at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, was there when one of her students got the word on how he did on the state's graduation test last week.
"He didn't pass. This is after 13 years of school. And this is a good kid who works hard, doesn't cause problems, shows up every day."
Beginning this year, 10th-graders have to pass the FCAT to get a standard diploma. They'll have several chances to pass it. But at some point, graduation is around the corner, and the chances run out.
"I have a student who won't graduate because he didn't pass it," Dubbeld said, pausing to appreciate the full effect of the words. "Anybody who looks at that child's face when he got his results would have to question standardized tests."
Comparing fruit to fruit
Teachers go batty over a flaw in the state's accountability system: The state looks at test scores for this year's fourth-graders and compares them with scores for last year's fourth-graders. If scores go up, they call it improvement. Different groups of kids? How is that improvement? It makes no sense.
The state knows it's a problem and there is a plan to fix it. Starting next year, the state will compare fourth-graders this year to fifth-graders next year. We'll be able to see how the kids are progressing.
But the damage has been done. In the eyes of many teachers, a key part of accountability has been a lie. Over and over again, teachers had the same complaint, with fruit the metaphor of choice:
* * *
"We're not really comparing apples to apples when we compare one group of kids against a completely different group of kids." -- ZANE McINROY, fourth grade, Brentwood Elementary in Pensacola, three years of experience.
"My feeling is we're not comparing apples. We're comparing apples and oranges and pineapples." -- COLLEEN HOWARD-WAHLS, special education, Northwest Elementary School in St. Petersburg, 17 years of experience.
"I just don't understand this sitting on a mountain top saying we know what's best for you; not listening. You can't make all teachers happy, but there's got to be some middle of the road. Come talk to us and see what we're dealing with. As a Republican, I'm embarrassed that my representative (Carl Littlefield) has a school in his district that is "substandard' but yet he's never bothered to come visit us to ask us why or what we need. Come see what we're dealing with. Don't just sit there and read numbers and reports. We don't all have to agree, but there's got to be some give and take. I just feel like they're ignoring us." -- ROBERT BROWN, agriculture, Zephyrhills High School, 10 years of experience.
"My kids can do so much more than what the tests show. You want to see how well my kids can write -- fantasy stories 20 pages long with characters and so much action; poetry that will make you cry. Don't look at a five-paragraph essay that they wrote in 45 minutes in response to a (topic) they had no choice in and may not have had a connection to. There needs to be more attention given to developing good writers." -- FREDA ABERCROMBIE, language arts, Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel, 10 years of experience.
FCAT in the classroom
Some teachers see that as a plus. Students have to show how they get their answers. They analyze writing samples. They write constantly. They learn math concepts in art class.
Some teachers think it narrows the curriculum down to test prep and little else. Talk about FCAT for a few minutes and the phrase "teaching to the test" will come up every time.
* * *
"You have to integrate it into your lesson plan and don't say, "This is the FCAT.' You won't walk into my classroom and see the stone tablets of the FCAT hanging on my wall." -- ROBERT BROWN, agriculture, Zephyrhills High School, 10 years of experience.
"We've gone more to technical readings rather than our cultural heritage of fiction. We're reading about how to adjust a VCR, which is technical reading and it's good. You need to do it . . . but I think it's just as important to know why Tom Sawyer got the other kids to paint his fence. That's cultural heritage." -- IRENE HUPP, eighth-grade language arts, Crystal River Middle School in Citrus County, 23 years of experience.
* * *
At his school's strong urging, Nick Keller, an eighth-grade reading teacher at Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, spent three weeks last year doing nothing but preparing his students to take the FCAT.
Instead of reading short stories by William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry, his classes buried themselves in test preparation work books and items from the state's FCAT question bank.
"There were any number of stories, be they fiction or non-fiction, that I would have read with the class that I didn't get to read. They were great American authors they ought to know and have read."
In the end, Keller couldn't tell that the test preparation had much of a payoff. So this year he "went out on a limb" and stuck to his original plans. Until he sees his students' scores, Keller won't know if his was a good gamble.
"You only have so many hours in the day and so many days in the year to teach. If you are going to take three weeks and teach only FCAT, there are some things you are going to miss."
* * *
"Kindergarten isn't just all fun and games and socialization anymore. There's a whole curriculum. . . . They like to start them writing in kindergarten." -- RUTH KENNEDY, kindergarten teacher, Moton Elementary School in Brooksville, two years of experience.
"My class hasn't changed that much, but I know the English curriculum for 10th grade has been dramatically reduced to prepare students for the test. Kids aren't reading the same number of books or having the same number of creative writing projects" -- CHRISTIE GOLD, journalism and Advanced Placement language composition, Gaither High School in Tampa, 10 years of experience.
* * *
Cathi Addison says her classroom is the only place where Skyview Elementary School students get to be kids. They don't always have to sit still. They don't always have to be quiet. They don't have to fill in bubble answer sheets or take practice tests.
"It's really the only opportunity where they get to do a lot of teamwork, a lot of group work," said Addison, an art teacher since 1978. "It's an area they get to express themselves. They realize how unique and special they are."
But even when they're working with clay or paint, Addison's students can't escape FCAT. She has always incorporated science and math and history into her class as her students sculpted or painted or drew. Now it's more regimented.
Students at the school in Pinellas Park spend about 30 percent of their time in her class calculating the volume and weight of their sculptures and measuring the equilateral triangles in their paintings. When she teaches patterns, she uses geometry terms, including flip and rotation. Her students groan when they sense an academic lesson coming on.
"They'll look at me and say, "When are we going to have art?' They want a break from all of it."
The all-testing, all-the-time mentality is not all bad.
Addison uses her students' art to inspire writing projects, and she marvels at the imaginative pieces they produce. They create stories about ceramic faces they have sculpted. They write about how it feels to look through the "magical windows" they painted. They work in groups to analyze Salvador Dali prints.
Despite themselves, the students sometimes bring up FCAT.
"One of the kids came up to me all excited. "Look in this painting. I can find three places where Salvador Dali flipped three images.' He was able to see a correlation between math and the art history print without me saying anything about math."
Still, she worries about the pressure FCAT places on kids. One testing day this year, an 8-year-old had an asthma attack, "so afraid of letting this teacher down."
"They know how important it is to get that grade for the school. I think it's too much pressure for a little kid. I think they should want to learn for the pure love of learning."
* * *
"I find it absolutely amazing they can't understand why people don't want to go into teaching. It's a no-brainer. There is enormous pressure put on teachers to make sure kids learn this, in many cases, mindless information.
"They wonder why people don't stay in teaching past three years or why people go to private schools. This doesn't happen in private schools. They load us up with all this guilt and set us up for failure and then don't know why we don't stick around. I feel sorry for new teachers coming in." -- SHARON HOGAN, second grade, Egypt Lake Elementary School in Tampa, 32 years of experience.
* * *
Becky Bride rearranges what she teaches so her students are at least exposed to FCAT material.
"Next year, surface area, area and volume, which is a second-semester topic, is going to be first. Pythagorean's theorem also will become first. Congruent triangles will move back to second semester," said Bride, a Palm Harbor University High School teacher.
"I guess it irritates me that I have to rearrange my curriculum for a test. If we're taking the test in February and this is typically taught in April, then we either need to change the testing to account for that or we need to change the curriculum, and I don't think the state is going to change the testing dates."
No matter how the 21-year veteran teacher juggles her lesson plans, some high school students walk into the math test and have never seen some of the material. Bride estimates that nearly 30 percent of 10th-graders have not had a full algebra course or geometry by the time they take FCAT.
"It's an algebra 1, geometry test. There is no requirement to take geometry, but that's what FCAT tests. It would be like testing a doctor who wants to be a dermatologist and yet there's a section of the test that is on foot surgery or heart surgery and they weren't required to take those courses.
"It's not fair to hold a kid accountable for something he has not been taught."
The ABCs of accountability
'Putting a letter grade on the school and on the kids isn't fair. Last year it was, like, 'Oh, you're from Little River? Isn't that the F school?' You hear that all the time.' -- DIANA GREENE, fourth grade, Little River Elementary School in Miami-Dade County, 27 years of experience.
"I had a kid this morning in (study hall) who said, "I just hate it Mrs. McNary.' And what does it do to you to be labeled a D school? That was demoralizing. It was insulting. It's nothing but legislators trying to affix blame and get a quick fix because they don't want to address the real problems in society. There was more pressure on all of us this year because we were a D school. It just drains you." -- JEAN McNARY, social studies, Zephyrhills High School, 24 years of experience.
"The Legislature in its infinite wisdom will be tying salaries to how well our kids perform year to year. There are many people who've left our school because it's a D school. They transfer to higher schools, to A and B schools. We have really good teachers who've said, "I've had it, I don't need to push that hard. I'm going to an A or B school.' It's so unfair." -- SHARON HOGAN, second grade, Egypt Lake Elementary in Tampa, 32 years of experience.
"I think the letter grades are harmful. My school has gotten a C both times so far. I think that some schools get A's or B's because of the types of students they have, not because of how hard the teachers are working or how hard the students are working. They just come from a socioeconomic group that are higher achievers." -- CRAIG HOUSE, third grade, High Point Elementary in Clearwater, 24 years of experience.
Teachers know their students will perform better if they let the class know what's expected, and if they stick to it. But sometimes the state doesn't do that very well.
During its short life, Florida's school accountability system has changed in ways big and small, so that teachers see it as something of a moving target. One year the scores for mobile students count toward the school grade; one year they don't. One year the more complex, extended-answer items count; one year they don't.
* * *
"There hasn't been anything that has remained the same. It changes every year. It makes it hard as an educator. I don't change my grading policy in the middle of the year to the student. They know ahead of time. If we can all be on the same train, going the same place, I think it would help alleviate some of the frustration teachers are feeling. They need to decide a decision and keep it a few years so we can actually do our job." -- DANA SCHAEFER, eighth-grade math, Coachman Fundamental Middle School in Clearwater, 16 years of experience.
Other states are putting together public school accountability systems, and Florida is being held up as the model. Teachers here have lots of advice for their colleagues: Take advantage of training; understand what is expected of them; start drilling students when school starts; avoid letting the test rule their lives.
Easier said than done.
* * *
"I would have to probably let them know what you have been doing is good teaching already. We think we've always been teaching correctly. You might have to change how you state things slightly, but that's okay." -- COLLEEN HOWARD-WAHLS, special education, Northwest Elementary School in St. Petersburg, 17 years of experience.
"I'd tell them to leave teaching and do something else because it's only going to get worse. It's just so hard to deal with all this -- how the governor treats you, how the public treats you. I've already advised my nephew's wife to go to Georgia and teach -- they live in Jacksonville. She was at the top of her class and she is a very bright young lady. I told her, "Don't bother with Florida. Go to Georgia."' -- JEAN McNARY, social studies, Zephyrhills High School, 24 years of experience.
"Move." -- CRAIG HOUSE, third grade, High Point Elementary School in Clearwater, 24 years of experience.
Room for improvement
* * *
"Make it later in the school year." -- SARA GIBSON, Latin and world history, Gulf High School in New Port Richey, 30 years of experience.
"My only issue is when we get the results back. We need to get them back sooner. Why not test 10th-graders at the start of the year, testing at the ninth-grade level. See where you're starting." -- GEORGE SOPER, Satellite High School in Brevard County, four years of experience.
"I would test at the beginning and ending of the year so you can see what the teacher accomplished instead of at the end." -- BECKY DRESSLER, eighth-grade language arts, Franklin Middle School in Tampa, 31 years of experience.
* * *
In the olden days -- that is, before FCAT -- 33-year teacher Georgine McGeoch might have asked her fourth-graders at Homosassa Elementary School in Citrus County to report orally how they reached a conclusion. But now a student is asked to explain his answer and how he got there. Others in the class chime in. After everyone has their say, the class writes what they have concluded.
Voila. Dissection of the thought process.
McGeoch highly approves of the activity, even if she doesn't like the way FCAT scores are used to grade schools.
Too often in recent years, learning involved punching the correct button on a computer to answer a question. "It's all Game Boy and Nintendo . . . kids don't even get out to play or roller skate anymore. When is the last time you saw a kid out riding his bike?"
Some Homosassa students were set for a reward for their good FCAT scores -- a trip to the roller rink. Lots said no; they don't know how to skate.
"We put people on the moon" before everyone turned to technology to take over thinking, McGeoch said. "They don't think anymore, but they need to."
-- This story was reported by Melanie Ave, Barbara Behrendt, Kent Fischer, Stephen Hegarty, Robert King and Kelly Ryan.
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