FCAT role in schools' fate may be demoted

Feb 10, 2008

Laura Green

Palm Beach Post

For the past eight years, FCAT scores have been the sole measure of a school, translated into A to F letter grades worn like a badge of honor or a scarlet letter.

But 2008 could be the last year that test is the final word on schools' success or failure.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is sponsoring a bill that would add graduation rates, SAT scores and a host of other indicators to the school grading equation for high schools only. Democrats are expected to introduce a measure adding factors, such as retention rates, for all schools' grades.

Legislators previously have introduced bills to diminish the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test's role in school grades. But this may be the year that change actually happens. Gov. Jeb Bush, the grades' chief protector, has left office. His successor, Gov. Charlie Crist, has indicated that changes are needed.

Confidence in the test on which grades are based has waned. Last year, the state acknowledged a testing error, resulting in as many as 200,000 inflated third-grade reading scores.

And new Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith has said he supports a broader measure of schools.

"I think this is the year for changes to the school grading system," said Gaetz, former Okaloosa County schools superintendent and chairman of the Senate's Pre-K-12 Education Committee.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, every state must annually test students in third grade to eighth grade in reading and math. But few states attach such high stakes to those scores as Florida.

Here that single test determines:

Whether students pass third grade.

Whether a senior graduates from high school.

Whether a teacher earns a bonus.

What grade a school and district get.

"The FCAT and the grading system has become such an organizing principle that it has suffocated everything in the public school system" that is not tested, said House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Schools are graded on reading, writing, math and, since last year, science.

Other factors that make up a well-rounded education, such as the arts, foreign language and special programs for gifted students, don't count. Therefore, in many schools, they don't matter, Gelber said.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said Florida would be moving in the right direction by judging schools on more elements.

"The inclusion of multiple indicators reflects the reality that educational quality involves much more than test scores," he said.

Gelber also wants to see some incentives for schools to push their brightest students to their full potential. Under the grading system now, schools earn the same number of points, regardless of whether a student earns a level 5, the highest score possible, or a 3, which is merely passing.

The grading system is a particularly poor measure of high schools, critics said.

Reading and math tests go only to 10th grade. Science covers 11th grade.

That sends a message to students that preparation for college and career is unimportant.

"If we gave schools higher grades because more kids went to college, well, guess what? More kids would go to college," Gelber said.

There are signs that the state's top education leaders want to move in that direction.

Smith pitched himself for the commissioner's job with a promise to raise the floor - expectations for students at the bottom - as well as the ceiling.

High schools should look beyond a test given once a year, he said. They should look for "evidence that kids are ready to do something powerful and meaningful when they leave us."

"The ability to focus the human resources, the professional talent that we have in our high schools, not just on the 10th-grade FCAT but beyond, can change the culture of our high schools," Smith said.

In November, Gaetz, Gelber, other legislators and two members of the state Board of Education traveled to New York to learn about its end-of-course tests.

All high school students there must pass at least five cumulative exams, including English, math, science, and world and U.S. history, to earn a diploma.

Interest is growing in replacing the high school FCAT with a similar model.

The fact that he was invited on a trip "to see a system other than the FCAT" shows state leaders are open to evaluating the status quo, Gelber said.

"I think this year the major steps could happen that will result in an evolution, if not real reform, of the accountability system," the Democratic leader said. "Now's the right time."

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