FCAT will soon be history, but new testing will take its place
Kelly Tyko, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers
8:03 AM, Feb 3, 2013
The FCAT soon will be history.
But another round of standardized testing is taking its place, despite growing numbers of people criticizing high-stakes testing. For every parent or teacher who complains tests such as the FCAT stress students and ineffectively measure learning, there is another who sees a standardized test as the only way to gauge fairly whether students know what they should.
How we got here
Standardized tests have been a part of American education since the mid-1800s but their use increased after 2002 when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated annual testing in all 50 states.
The federal law required states to test students to receive federal funding but allowed each state to pick its own test and criteria.
Since 1998, students across the state have taken the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a part of the Florida's A-plus accountability program championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, who came to office in 1999 and championed a program that assigns letter grades to schools based on students' FCAT performance.
The FCAT is used to gauge Florida's progress under the federal law, but it also factors into third-grade promotion, high-school graduation, school funding, class placement, teacher pay and evaluations and even whether a school stays open.
Schools whose students do well on the test earn prestige and school recognition money, which often is passed to teachers as bonuses. Schools with low scores face embarrassment and the loss of students to the state's voucher program.
While Florida's accountability system has been lauded as a national model because of reported academic gains, critics say year-to-year comparisons that would prove those gains are nearly impossible because the state reconfigures how it grades students and schools. Last year, poor FCAT writing scores prompted state educators to revise the passing grade.
"It's political, it's not professional," said Michael Lannon, superintendent of St. Lucie County School District. "Unfortunately, the real issue is that the profession of teaching and learning has been co-opted by the politicians."
Parents, teachers and administrators have spoken out about testing. But they are far from alone.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said she thought high-stakes testing was good because "it would get everyone focused on learning." Ravitch was an assistant secretary of education in President George H.W. Bush's administration from 1991 to 1993, and from 1994 to 2007, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board.
The author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" has changed her opinion.
"Now, I think high stakes testing is a disaster because it gets everyone focused on the tests to the exclusion of other goals of education that are more important like citizenship, character, judgment, creativity, thoughtfulness," Ravitch said in an email to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. "It narrows the curriculum, causing schools to diminish time for the arts, civics, history and activities that help kids learn. It causes cheating, score inflation, wastes millions on testing that should be spent on instruction."
Last year, an anti-testing campaign, "The National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing," was signed by more than 14,000 individuals and 460 groups, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing Inc., also referred to as FairTest, which helped launch the campaign. The national movement grew from a Texas petition criticizing the misuse of standardized exams, but FairTest also worked with groups such as Parents Across America, which started in South Florida.
In May, the St. Lucie County School Board became the second board in Florida to take a stand against testing, following the Palm Beach County School Board.
About a week after St. Lucie approved the resolution, the state warned more rigorous grading on the writing portion of the FCAT triggered a steep decline in scores. The state Board of Education lowered the passing score and the anti-testing movement grew.
The Martin and Indian River school boards and the Florida School Board Association all approved the resolution.
Politicians have responded to some criticisms. State lawmakers decided in 2008 that the FCAT carried too much weight in high school grades. Elementary and middle school grades continue to be based entirely on FCAT scores, but the state-mandated exam accounts for only half of a high school's grade.
In 2010, lawmakers called for the phasing out of the FCAT at the high school level and phased in end-of-course exams to replace the FCAT math and science exams. Students still are required to pass the 10th-grade reading FCAT to receive a diploma.
"I think it's a much more comprehensive review of how a school is doing," Indian River Schools Superintendent Fran Adams said. "It's not pinning a grade on a single assessment like FCAT. FCAT's part of it, but it's only part of it."
Along with 47 other states, starting in the 2014-15 school year, Florida students will be tested on a new national set of academic standards called "Common Core State Standards." Alaska and Texas have not signed on to participate in common core.
Exactly how Common Core will look has not been determined, and local and state school officials are unsure of the impacts on students, teachers and schools.
Martin County Schools Superintendent Laurie Gaylord said there are benefits of the forthcoming national standards, such as the ability to compare students' performance against students in other states.
"I hope we never lose our local control and will continue to teach about St. Augustine and the history of Florida in elementary school," Gaylord said. "Now is that something students in Alaska should learn about? I don't know, but I think that it's important for us in Florida."
HOW THE FCAT HAS EVOLVED
More than 20 years before the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test debuted, the state required students to take standardized tests. . Here is how the state's testing program has changed over the past decades.
1972: Florida launches its first statewide testing program.
1976: The Florida Legislature moved the statewide tests to grades 3, 5, 8, and 11, including the nation's first required high school graduation test, which started in 1977.
1983: Students in the graduating class of 1983 were required to pass the competency test to receive a high school diploma.
1996: The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was developed with the Sunshine State Standards — what students should know and be able to do as they progress through school.
1998: The first full-scale implementation of FCAT occurred.
1999: Under Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ plan, the FCAT was expanded to include grades 3 through 10.
2000: State gives public schools letter grades based on student performance on the reading, writing and math sections of the FCAT.
2003: FCAT Science was administered for the first time to grades 5, 8 and 10, and the graduating class was required to pass the FCAT to receive a standard diploma.
2006: FCAT Writing exam expanded to include multiple choice section in addition to essay.
2008: State lawmakers decide FCAT should not be the largest component in determining high school grades. To save money, they also cut the writing multiple choice section and a test that compared Florida students to other across the U.S. More cuts to the statewide assessment program, included discontinuing the popular online FCAT Parent Network that allowed parents to look up scores and eliminating 10th-grade retakes.
2009: More budget cuts hit the FCAT including the elimination of all summer retakes and a portion of the science FCAT.
2010: Lawmakers called for the phasing out of FCAT math and science at the high school level, replacing them with end-of-course exams.
2011: A new, more challenging FCAT 2.0 debuts. In December 2011, for the first time in a decade, the Florida Board of Education approved new benchmark standards with higher passing scores, which went into effect with the spring 2012 FCAT.