Teachers views split over test
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001
INVERNESS -- There was a time when Pat Allen used cooking lessons to bridge the cultural gap felt by students for whom English is a second language.
"There is so much emphasis on testing that we're going to turn off an entire generation on learning," Allen said. "I don't have time for all the little fun things that kids enjoy."
Of course, standardized testing has long been a part of public education. But many teachers and observers have said the Florida school system has dramatically changed under the shadow of FCAT.
And while there are plenty of educators who don't like all the changes they see, most see some value in FCAT. Others have a variety of suggestions on how to make it better. Still others say the plan should be abolished.
Citrus County's FCAT numbers are mixed this year, with good news in math and middle and high school reading scores, but drops in writing scores in the middle and high schools.
Those important scores were released earlier this month. Since then, educators have waited to see what overall grade the state has assigned their schools. Those grades are based largely on FCAT results. Grades will be released in the next week or two.
During the lull between announcements, the Citrus Times talked to a number of local teachers to get some first-hand viewpoints.
"I think what I like best about it is there is accountability -- accountability for teachers and accountability for students grasping the concepts," said Inverness Primary School fourth-grade teacher Tina Adams. "Sometimes teachers feel like it is an attack on education . . . but I really feel like it's gratifying at the end of it to see what has been accomplished."
Other teachers weren't gratified. "Everyone knows that you can have a bad day, but for one test to be a judgment on your education is farcical," Citrus High School English teacher Deborah Platt said.
"The grading system is a disaster. I don't like it at all and I don't have anything good to say about it," said Crystal River Middle School social studies teacher Frank Laga. "I dislike the pressure that's being placed on fourth- and fifth-grade children."
Laga's son, who is a good student, told him the week of FCAT that he hated school.
"I think they're trying to create a failure," Laga said. "We have taught to the test, no matter what everyone has said."
In the days before FCAT, Homosassa Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Georgine McGeoch would have asked her students to answer questions orally. Now students must explain how they arrived at their answer, and other students get to chime in and help. Then, after everyone has their say, the class writes what they have concluded.
Voila. Dissection of the thought process.
McGeoch, 55, 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, she said. "It's all Game Boy and Nintendo. . . . They don't think anymore, but they need to."
The FCAT was designed to test critical thinking skills, which students obviously need. Old teaching methods of memorization and listening to lectures more and more are giving way to hands-on activities and problem solving.
For some, FCAT has accomplished its goals, providing a way to measure whether students are learning what they need to learn. For others, the system has fatal flaws.
"The best thing I like about the FCAT is that it gives our students a measuring stick with other students in the state," said Inverness Middle School language arts teacher Ethan Eldridge, who is in his third year as a teacher.
Allen, from Citrus Springs Elementary, sees the upside and the downside.
"I think it has helped us to focus more on writing than has been done in the past," she said. "The negative is the focus on writing is too patterned. I feel we are not getting the creativity. It's too much of a formula. . . . It's very cut and dried."
"I like the fact that FCAT does offer teachers an evaluation to look to see what the kids know and don't know," said Annie Brooks, a seventh-grade math teacher at Crystal River Middle School. "But what I don't like is the fact that we're graded and that does not reflect what we do, and we do an awful lot, on a daily basis . . . one test can't show that."
Platt, the English teacher from Citrus High, said FCAT forces teachers to focus on reading and math skills, which is a plus.
"But it's not being used as it should be used. As a diagnostic tool, it would be a good tool . . . but teachers are not given any information about where their students' weaknesses are," said Platt, who has 22 years of teaching experience. "Basically, it's used punitively by the state to judge schools and judge teachers. I don't think it's fair to students and I don't think it's fair to teachers."
Irene Hupp, language arts teacher at Crystal River Middle School, agreed.
"I am not opposed and don't feel antagonistic toward any test that measures accomplishment. The real problem with basing a school's grade on student scores is that students are not cans of soup, window sills or chairs. You cannot make a dozen of the same mold," she said.
"I dislike some of the wording of the questions. I dislike basing an entire year's grade on one test. And I really dislike being termed a failure because of FCAT when the fault is in FCAT and not in the school."
Students in grades 3 through 10 take the FCAT, which assesses reading, math and writing skills. The scores take on special meaning for the fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-grade students and teachers.
At those levels, the scores are used as the primary factor to determine a school's overall grade, from A to F. Other factors include a school's dropout rate and absenteeism level.
Also, starting this year, the state is requiring 10th-grade students to pass FCAT as a graduation requirement. It has replaced the old High School Competency Test.
Students at schools graded F two consecutive years are eligible for vouchers. Schools graded D and F receive additional funding designed to help them boost their performance.
At the other end of the spectrum, A grades earn a school cash incentives and high prestige.
Down the road, student achievement will be used to judge teachers and administrators. With so much riding on the scores, it is little wonder that many teachers say they and their students feel pressure.
"Yeah, I'd love to be an A school, but we're fine as long as our kids are doing the best that they can," said Jennifer Sansone-Berbert, a fourth-grade teacher at Hernando Elementary School.
Still, it creates pressure. Some students don't test well and for a school to earn a D, "no matter where you come from, a D is not a good grade."
While FCAT doesn't test art skills, Crystal River High School art teacher Jim Langston still has incorporated FCAT-like skills into his writing assignments and has added more instruction on measurement. He said he can see the effect of the pressure on his students.
"It takes away their concentration and their drive for their other classes," Langston said. "Some students are very task-oriented and for them, the FCAT is the task. And they have to pass it to pass."
But not everyone agrees that the FCAT pressure is overwhelming.
Eldridge, the language arts teacher at Inverness Middle, said he tries not to let his students feel pressure about FCAT.
"There is a very big job ahead of me to educate these students," he said. "I try to take the pressure out of it. . . . I tell them to think of it as an exercise because we prepare for it."
Adams said that she doesn't feel the pressure so the students don't either.
"We tell students, "You are learning, so really, on the day of FCAT, you're just showing all the things that you've learned,' " Adams said.
"You have to remember that you really are a teacher and your job is to teach children and that means you take them from where they are and you move them forward," she said. "Keep the perspective. You are a teacher and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we are here to teach them skills that they need in life."
For Lecanto Middle School sixth-grade English teacher Linda Caldwell, FCAT is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse.
Tests like FCAT "are looking at critical thinking skills . . . which are for the higher echelons of the world. . . . We're just not doing this correctly," said Caldwell, who has more than 30 years of classroom experience. "We need to emphasize basic skills and forget critical thinking skills."
She said she sees a real need to go in a different direction.
"We have them so regimented," Caldwell said. "You can't teach creative writing anymore because it's so regimented."
Laga said he thinks students need to be tested, but "we have to be careful to not destroy academic freedom, creativity and the will of kids to come to school."
He suggests shortening the test to remove some of the pressure.
Sansone-Berbert said the timing of the test is wrong because standards from the entire year are tested even though the test is given more than two months before the end of the year.
"Teachers start to teach the test and start to throw out other things that were important just to get through the math and reading," she said. "I don't do that. FCAT is not going to make or break anyone but I know teachers who don't do the fun things, don't do the projects.
"You find yourself teaching for the test instead of teaching for kids to love learning."
"I'm afraid we're turning off children to learning. We're teaching to a test," she said. Several teachers said they prefer to see students tested at the beginning and at the end of the year to determine how they have progressed.
"I would change the (school) grade being based on this one test. Of course the grade is also based on things over which we have no control," said Hupp, who has 23 years of experience.
Brooks, also of Crystal River Middle School, said she thought the test drove an unnecessary wedge between the schools and the state.
"I would change the philosophy, the thought behind it," she said. "We need to look at the school districts and the state of Florida as partners. We're all working together to put our students first."
"The one thing I think that I would change would be to change how the scores are used," Platt said. "I'd want the scores used to help students learn instead of judging them and help teachers to know where their weaknesses are so they can help students. . . . If they were used diagnostically to really help students, then this would be the perfect test."
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