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Years of learning, just dots on a page


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

My recurring point is not that Florida's public school students shouldn't be tested. Of course they should be tested.

My recurring point is not that Florida's public school students shouldn't be tested. Of course they should be tested.

But Florida's political leaders, led by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature, have gone overboard. They live in a black-and-white world in which standardized tests alone determine winners and losers, graduation or failure, "good" and "bad" schools, who gets money and who loses it.

The world is not that simple.

But why listen to me? Listen, instead, to the rising number of parents who are crying out in protest:

"My son has received straight A's in all subjects since he began high school, with the exception of one B," Pat Krueger of Safety Harbor told me. She sent me his report card to prove it.

This is indeed impressive, because her son is seriously dyslexic and reads at a fourth-grade level. He keeps his grades up through hard work and with auditory assistance.

If you are thinking, "Surely, they make allowance for this young man on the test," you would be wrong. The pertinent part of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test covers reading, and so, by gum, read he must.

Even without the usual time limit, it took him an hour and a half to struggle through just one of the eight questions. "So he did what he never does," Pat Krueger says. "He gave up."

(Remember, his brain simply doesn't see the words on the page in the usual way. So his "test" makes as much sense as telling nearsighted students they can't wear glasses.)

"His attitude has really gone downhill since the FCAT," Krueger says. "He feels, why put in all this hard work if he's not going to receive a diploma in the end? I was told that our options are (1) sign him up as a no-diploma student ... or (2) drop out and get a GED."

Another mother, Ashley Newhaller of Palm Harbor, has a son in the first grade and a daughter in the third grade. She tells me:

"In December, we pulled our son out of public school and put him into a private school. He was so stressed out from the FCAT practice drills he had been doing. Even though he was an above-average student and doing well, he had lost all interest in going to school. "Next year, my daughter faces the FCAT in fourth grade, and I am trying to decide if I should move her to the same school as my son. She has already been practicing it for two years. ... From August to February, she will be taught to take a test (by a wonderful fourth-grade teacher now required to teach a certain way). I can think of a lot more things she could be doing."

Davanna Kilgore is another mother with two children in Ozona Elementary School. "This experience is teaching my bright 10-year-old to dislike school," she tells me. "It is a demoralizing experience because it reduces your brain power, your intellect, to a standardized bubble on a page."

I have no space left for the comments from the teacher of exceptional education, who sees the shame in her students' faces when they "fail." Neither can I quote the teaching aide whose job is being eliminated because her school's students didn't score well enough (now, THERE'S common sense).

Lastly, there's no room to talk about how Dr. Jeb's All-Power Feelgood Elixir isn't even trustworthy -- the testing industry is full of error and late or incorrect results, as this newspaper has reported, and as the New York Times reported again Sunday and Monday. Notice that our education commissioner has just decided to replace Florida's testing company because of problems -- it does not exactly inspire confidence.

If you begin with contempt for the public schools, this is the kind of public policy you produce. How long before the pendulum starts to swing back the other way? Maybe it has started already.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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