In May we learned that fewer than half of Florida fourth- and 10th-graders received passing scores on this year’s FCAT writing test. It was a dramatic drop from 2011 scores. The Department of Education responded by “recalibrating” the grading system to raise the passing grade so that more children passed, explaining that the low scores resulted from inadequate communication to the schools of a new, tougher grading system this year. Better communication, it said, would have allowed teachers to better prepare for the test.
The “fix,” simply redefining the result, is a tacit admission that the test score is more important than the factors behind it. Fixing the scores solves nothing to address the revelation that students failed to acquire basic literacy and grammar skills. Nor does it address the real problems with the FCAT, whether in writing, math or science. The many criticisms of the FCAT come down to one big problem, and that is the overreliance by our state’s educational system on the test scores. FCAT scores determine how much funding schools receive, whether a child advances to the next grade, and, soon, teacher compensation.
The pressure on teachers to produce high scores leads to “teaching to the test” — focusing on things that will be tested and test-taking skills instead of on teaching a broad range of skills, critical thinking, real world experiences, and subjects other than those tested. This year’s writing tests results prove that. Had the students received a solid foundation in writing and grammar instead of what was expected on the test based on last year’s scoring, the results might have differed. And, because all children in the same grade take the same test, the need for flexibility in teaching children with different talents, interests and needs is forgotten. They don’t reward our children for their uniqueness, their intellectual curiosity or their efforts to figure things out and question the simple answers. Nor do they reward the teachers who tailor their lessons to the individual talents and needs of each child. Teachers who do strive to provide a well-rounded education with attention on each child’s individual needs, and the parents of students who benefit from such an education, complain that the tests don’t test what the children really learn.
The state’s dependence on test scores in funding decisions can lead educators to make decisions based on raising test scores instead of on considerations of student welfare. A study in 2006 by economist David Figlio from the University of Florida reported that lower FCAT scoring students were more likely to be suspended for longer periods around test times than their higher scoring peers, presumably to prevent those lower-scoring students from being present to take the test and bring down the school’s scores.
The pressure on children to achieve high test scores creates tremendous stress on them. Before tests, they lose sleep, skip school and become ill. This stress is particularly intense in students with strong academic records, for whom the fear of failure looms large. It has been noted that there is a relationship between a student’s low FCAT scores and a higher likelihood that that child will drop out of school.
This hurts our communities as well. Reports of low FCAT scores can make a community unattractive to people thinking of moving to a new area. Low scores also make a community unattractive to teachers considering moving in, when they know that their compensation will depend on the scores.
On the other side of the coin, supporters of the FCAT say that the tests are good preparation for the adult world, where assessments abound. They also say that standardized tests hold teachers and schools to high standards of education. They provide the “metrics” that CEOs and politicians love, measurable outcomes against objective criteria and benchmarks.
True enough. Standards are great; uniformity not so much. The problem isn’t with the existence of standardized tests, which can be useful tools. As a tool it’s one thing. It just should not be the only thing. The problem is the reliance on the scores as the primary determinant of vital decisions affecting schools, children, teachers, and our communities.
On May 30, the School Board of Broward County unanimously adopted a resolution asking the state to develop a system using multiple forms of assessment, which reflect a broad range of student learning, and to de-emphasize the FCAT. It found that the FCAT is an unreliable measure of learning and teaching, and that overreliance on it does more harm than good. The Palm Beach County School Board has adopted a similar resolution. This issue is expected to be a topic of discussion at the Florida School Boards Association meeting in Tampa next week. If more local school boards and the association get on board, perhaps the state government will listen, and revise the system; and, through the public attention it has brought to the issue, the FCAT writing scores fiasco will have had a hand in solving the real problem after all.
Sue Jacobson is a Sarasota lawyer and regional president of the American Jewish Committee.