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    Letters to the Editors

    Testing misses the real purpose of education

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001

    Re: Scores up in two of the three R's, May 9.

    I hate to rain on the FCAT parade of praise for this year's higher test scores, but it seems that we are missing the big picture here. What do high test results really signify? The FCAT, as well as other high-stakes tests, does not measure whether future U.S. citizens will be able to utilize critical thinking skills throughout their everyday lives.

    What it does ensure is a nation of workers who rely on a booklet to get them through life's problems, which we all know does not occur by bubbling in A, B, C or D on a multiple choice test.

    What exactly should teachers be celebrating by having their students achieve higher test scores? That policymakers and administrators will let them keep their jobs -- jobs that no longer challenge them to create motivated lifelong learners, but rather "test" their accountability to teach to a single test? For weeks, if not months, of every school year, worthwhile learning activities are replaced with long hours of FCAT practice tests and workbook exercises. For what? So Education Commissioner Charlie Christ and Gov. Jeb Bush can humiliate schools in need of help by publishing test results and labeling them a "D" or "F" school, while awarding bonuses to "A" schools, where funding isn't in extreme demand?

    I congratulate teachers and students on their achievement based not on improved test scores but for putting up with an arduous year of FCAT bull. I know. I am a teacher and I've seen it. If teachers, administrators, parents and students are fed up with FCAT, we can do something about it. Contact local schools and government officials and voice your opinion. It's time to take a stand against high-stakes testing and the FCAT.
    -- Danielle Mall, St. Petersburg

    Testing has hidden costs

    Re: Cost of testing seems reasonable, letter, May 8.

    To answer the question posed by the writer: Yes! You did miss something! At $12.50 per child, the "cost" of testing certainly seems reasonable at first glance. But standardized testing promoters don't figure in the hidden costs of the test-test-test mentality.

    What price do we put on creativity? What price on critical thinking skills? What is the eventual cost to society of a viewpoint that encourages people to think of education as equivalent to training, a stopover on the way to becoming a cog in the commercial machine instead of a life-enriching experience valuable for its own sake?

    Those who believe standardized testing represents the ideal of education must also believe the Mona Lisa is only as valuable as the cost of paint and canvas, or that Michelangelo's David should be valued as raw marble.

    Yes, the letter writer missed something: the difference between raising human beings and programming machines or training animals. Our politicians must stop overlooking this facet of education, but so long as their constituents can see no further than they can, they'll continue. Echoing the failings of the last Bush era: "It's the vision thing!"
    -- Brent Yaciw, Wesley Chapel

    Why should FCAT distract?

    I find it very disturbing that teachers make statements that they have to stop teaching to cover FCAT. What are they teaching that would not aid a student in taking the FCAT?

    Pinellas County has issued expectations for each subject and every grade level. These expectations are directly aligned with the Sunshine State Standards. If they incorporate these expectations into the subject matter they are already teaching, they will not have to do extra work directed at the FCAT.

    Teachers who tell you they have to quit teaching to prepare for FCAT are not doing their job.
    -- Paul "Danny" Bigham, St. Petersburg

    The realities of the school budget

    I want to share some facts about the education funding in the Legislature's budget for next year. In Pinellas County, the $18-million in new dollars (3 percent) represents less than half of what we got last year. In order to be factual about the real amount available to improve public education in Pinellas County you need to know this.

    Some $6-million is tied to the so-called "bonus" of $850 for teachers only -- and maybe not all of those. This one time-bonus circumvents the bargaining process in districts like ours and cannot be considered as salary, so it does not count toward retirement. Do the governor and the leaders in the Legislature recall that we currently rank 31st of the 50 states in average teacher salary? Could they possibly have not heard that teachers in Florida make $4,000 on average less than teachers in Georgia?

    Another $3-million to $4-million must be paid for "school recognition" money under the governor's so-called A+

    Plan. This is the school-grade money based on the state's grading system, which is neither valid nor reliable. Last year this was funded by the Legislature in a separate account. Not so this year.

    Finally, health insurance increases must be covered. I appreciate the Pinellas School Board's efforts to absorb health care increases over the past several years. This year's increase is $7-million.

    So here's a suggested FCAT math question for next year's test: If Gov. Bush and the Florida Legislature budget $18-million for public education in Pinellas County and $6-million must be used for "bonuses" and $4-million must be used to pay schools that get a good grade from the state and $7-million must go to cover increased health insurance costs, what is left for raises for 16,000 employees, for inflation and for programs?

    And how about a follow-up question (and we'll make it multiple choice so it counts!): This amount is a) insufficient b) short-sighted c) criminal d) all of the above.
    -- Rob McMahon, president, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, Largo

    Too many chiefs

    It seems the Pinellas County School Board may have to return some of its administrators to the classroom in order to comply with the Florida Legislature's budget.

    Terrific! While schools are grossly underfunded and our state government should hang its head in shame, the School Board should do the same. Pinellas County has far too many chiefs and could use a lot more Indians! Any movement in that direction would be a good thing. Classroom teachers already are overburdened to the extent that many of them, especially the younger ones, are leaving the field for more lucrative and less stressful jobs.
    -- Melanie Woods, Palm Harbor

    Look at the decisionmakers

    Re: Testing the limits, May 2.

    According to H.D. Hoover, testing expert, on discussing public school testing, "This is not just an education issue, it's a political issue. The people making the decisions are politicians."

    That tells it all. Decisions that affect every kid's life are not made by professional educators, but by lawyers, business types and others in the Legislature, most of whom have never taught even one day in the classroom. Some experts, right?
    -- So here is an idea: Let's put teachers in the Legislature to pass laws affecting law schools and business programs. After all, fair is fair.
    Al Morris, Palm Harbor

    Education is ill served

    Re: Lawmakers lower the grading scale, expand vouchers, May 5.

    It appears as if the Legislature has found new ways to get higher grades for our school system. The Legislature has approved the lowering of the percentages needed to get grades. What used to take a 94 percent for an "A" grade now only requires a 90 percent, and so on down the line for all the grades. Soon I expect we will have the distinction of having the poorest education system of any state in the United States.

    To help us achieve this new educational panacea Education Commissioner Charlie Crist has made two thoughtful additions to his department. Mary Laura Openshaw, sister of a top adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush has been hired to oversee Florida's schools at $77,000 a year. She will oversee a $17-million budget and supervise the education of the state's 2.2-million public school students. Her experience in education has been working a total of five years as a private school teacher. The other new hire is Sara Struhs, wife of state Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs and sister of White House chief of staff Andrew Card. Mrs. Struhs works as a part-time policy analyst at the Education Department for 20 hours a week and makes $35,000 a year. Sara's brother is a top adviser to President Bush, Jeb Bush's older brother.

    These grade changes and new hires, coupled with the dismantling of the state Board of Regents, teaching test-taking in our schools, plus the overhaul the state's career service system are a real boon to cronyism and nepotism in our education system.

    Does anyone care about Florida students?
    -- Roger F. Meissner, Sun City Center

    New grading system levels the field

    The Legislature recently passed a bill that would change the current student grading system in the public school system.

    We feel this positive legislation would finally place our students on a level playing field with students from other states. Giving a student who has a 90 percent and above an A gives Florida students grading parity with students in other states when applying for college entrance. With the current grading system, our students are at a distinct disadvantage. Students from out-of-state public schools are gaining entrance into Florida's universities, along with colleges throughout the nation, over Florida students due to the fact that their grades are based on a different grading standard.

    As parents of college-bound students, we strongly urge the governor to sign the new grading system for Florida students into law.
    -- Scott A. Wilson and Marianne S. Wilson, Clearwater

    Leading the way?

    Re: Winners & losers, May 6.

    What's going on? Last December I wrote a letter to the editor in response to the Dec. 16 article, Earning an A in tough program gets tougher on paper. In that letter (IB students are different, Dec. 26) I stated that for 14 years my grading scale had been A=90-100, B=80-89, C=70-79 and D=65-69. However, to be a "good soldier," I would use the county/state scale, commencing with this spring semester.

    Now, the Legislature has decided that I was right all along and reverted to the pre-1987 grading scale, which is even more generous than my former scale, with its D=60-69. I'd like to think that House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay reacted positively to my letter. However, do you suppose the graduation rate slide from 62 percent to 57 percent had something to do with it?

    I also noticed that the Legislature has identified three university campuses on which to promote an interest in teaching among "high-achieving students." With the Legislature engaging in empty, education reforms, such as this yet-again change in the grading scale, do you think any "thinking" student can be convinced to enter my profession?

    Oh well, at least I can call myself a leader in education reform, don't you think?
    -- Dr. Wallace F. Witham, IB teacher, Belleair Bluffs

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