Law brings new FCAT era: Less emphasis on preparation

Aug 17, 2008

Laura Green

Palm Beach Post

The dreaded FCAT worksheet is dead. Or at least diminished.

As students start a new school year today, they'll find the all-FCAT-all-the-time culture in Florida schools is outlawed by a new state statute.

Principals no longer are allowed to drop science curriculum to allow juniors to brush up on FCAT skills, as some in Palm Beach County did last year. And the FCAT workbooks, omnipresent during the frenzied weeks and even months before the spring tests, should see minimal daylight this year.

"The purpose of this law is to prevent well-meaning teachers and schools and districts from stopping their usual curriculum timeline ... and just focusing on FCAT practice," said Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor of Florida's K-12 public schools.

Some view the law as punishing teachers who have adapted to a high-stakes testing culture rather than addressing what they see as FCAT mania's underlying cause - too much emphasis on the test.

"Some schools and some teachers spend way too much time on the FCAT," said Toni Howenstine, a Dwyer High teacher set to start her 38th year in the classroom. "It has come to that because that's what holds us accountable and that's basically the reality of it."

Unlike standardized tests in most states, FCAT scores are used to grade schools, dictate whether a student may pass to fourth grade and determine whether a high school senior can graduate. Bad scores can force out a principal. Good scores can earn teachers bonuses.

Some Palm Beach County principals justified skipping seven weeks of chemistry curriculum last year to review previous years' science content, which is tested on the 11th-grade FCAT, because bad science scores can drag down a school's grades.

"I just have a concern that sometimes people feel they have no choice but to try to do what they can to enhance a student's score instead of focusing on real, sustainable learning," said Kathryn Hensley, a St. Lucie County School Board member.

Hensley doesn't favor all parts of the law, but said she too worries that excessive test preparation is standing in the way of genuine teaching.

"My philosophy is you teach children what they need to know and over time the test scores will take care of themselves," she said.

Representatives of the Florida Department of Education are taking the unusual step of discouraging superintendents from buying prep books in bulk this year.

"What has been a great concern, greater almost every year, is that we see more and more FCAT workbook-type materials in classrooms. It's odd to visit a school and not see an FCAT workbook on shelves," Tappen said. "Good instruction is not getting a workbook out and going to the next page. We just don't want to see that."

It's not that the workbooks themselves should be banned, though Tappen worries they may not be as closely aligned to state standards and to what will be tested as some teachers think. It's that they symbolize a withdrawal from the hands-on teaching techniques researchers say students respond to best.

Schools still will have plenty of access to preparation materials. The Department of Education publishes some of its own. Many textbook publishers provide free workbooks, boiling down hundreds of pages of content into test-ready questions.

Even FCAT critics believe students need preparation.

The test's format can be tricky. Questions often ask for the "best answer," meaning more than one can be technically correct.

State Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, a former science teacher, suggested amendments to the original bill, which would have banned virtually any sort of test preparation, including the use of any book, other than those published by the state, with the word FCAT in the title.

Vana said, however, that it would be "malpractice" not to provide any review.

The law allows teachers to familiarize students with the format of the test, including how to properly bubble in an answer. Students who have failed previous years' math and reading FCATs will still take remediation courses.

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