A weekend interview with ...
... Broward County superintendent Jim Notter. Notter recently sent out a letter to thousands of students telling them about how the district is scaling back its "FCAT frenzy." He talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about the district's new stance on the high-stakes test.
Tell me a little bit about why you decided to send out this letter about scaling back the emphasis on the FCAT.
Sure. Over the past few months our board has had some rich debate and dialog in terms of the negative impact that FCAT is truly imparting on all of our students. It's sometimes known as the FCAT frenzy. They wanted to take an aggressive action. And we had some rich debate in ... a couple of workshops. In the sense of what is truly going on and what can we do as public educators to refocus on the education of the whole child vs. strictly this frenzy of test prep, very prescriptive writing exercises. We need to get back to truly educating the whole child and worry about the quality education of that whole child, vs. simply turning out a product that can pass a test called FCAT.
So how do you get to the point where people were doing this frenzied activity toward the test rather than focusing on the child as a whole?
We got to that point when Florida, seven years ago, initiated FCAT. If you roll it backward from that point, it's been an escalating process over that seven years where more and more emphasis became test prep and teaching to the test vs. teaching the whole content of your curriculum, no matter what your curricular expertise is.
Was that something that happened because of teachers and administrators and school boards focusing on the test? Or was that, do you feel, a directive from the state - focus on the test?
I believe that really emanated from Tallahassee with a consistent increase in the focus of grading of schools, and from there then spread throughout our communities, and obviously to our students and our parents, because of the push for your school to be an A school. ...
I was watching the House and Senate joint committee meeting on education (Wednesday). They were talking about the FCAT. And Rep. Anitere Flores from Miami, the chair of the House Education Committee, she pointed to these articles (see below) and said how she thought it was the school districts and not the state that was making the test be the issue. She felt like the issue should be focusing on high standards and not on whether you're going to have a test at the end of the day. ...
My argument would be that the state in fact rewards the A school with the A++ money. ... When you take a look at a state emphasis putting money into that reward system of an A school, that has the direct push back of OK, we really need to teach to the test. It's in the context, if you're going to study for your LSATs ... what do you do? You go to test prep. You want to increase your ACT scores, what do you do? You go to a vendor, you go to a test prep group to teach you how the questions are structured and what's the best way to find the right answer if in fact you don't have the knowledge of that answer. From that character trait, the state clearly by grading schools, by in fact putting dollars on the A grade to those schools, has had the reverse effect where now many public school systems throughout the state ... are truly questioning why such a myopic focus on passing the FCAT? Shouldn't we be doing what we were doing years ago, in terms of teaching the whole child? We're not concerned, or we're not afraid, of accountability. The reality is, though, when you have a reward system that only rewards the A school, that in fact has that effect on everybody else. It's all about, how do I get my school to be an A.
Your school district is the first to take this step.
Well, Broward has always been a leader. I can just say it that way. ... We did not do it blindly. We took a very deep look at what we were doing. We listened to our community. We listened to our parents. We listened to, frankly, all the horror stories. You know, third graders, fourth graders being sick, having headaches, throwing up, all kinds of ridiculous outcomes, frankly, of having to go in and take this exam.
So are you doing away with things like the FCAT pep rallies as well? And the FCAT incentives? You know, show up and win a prize sort of stuff?
Yes. We put a task force together, and that task force has been given clear direction by me and the board to take a look at all activities that necessarily are going on in our schools that have that myopic focus only on the test. Certainly, I was not at the point where I would put out an edict to all the schools that there shall be no programs. We want to now take a look at what are some of the programs that the schools are doing, and how we can deemphasize the test. However, yet have our students understand test taking techniques. But not to the level of drill and kill.
I'm looking forward to seeing how this works out. ... My son is getting ready to start kindergarten next year, and I'll be happy to see a school that doesn't say 'FCAT' from the first day he shows up to the last day he leaves.
You're an exact reason why in this community called Broward we took this aggressive action. Because that's what we heard. I have two daughters with children now. I'm a grandfather. I get to go and talk with some of their friends. I've been to chamber meetings and gotten a standing ovation when I mention the fact that our board is taking an aggressive action to reduce the FCAT frenzy. Frankly, in my career, it's very seldom to Number One, get a standing ovation, let alone from de-emphasizing a test called an accountability test. But it really is. It's pervasive. ... We're the sixth largest school district in the nation. So we're talking about hundreds of people. You get to talk with them later on. They tell you these stories, even to the point where they feel that their children are getting cheated out of a well-rounded education. ...
Level 4 and 5, the highest two levels. The reality is, and we've done the research, less than 4 percent of the kids that are 4's and 5's slide below, slide one level down. Typically, the kids that are 4's and 5's stay 4's and 5's. So why am I pre-testing, post-testing, post-testing again? That just defies educational logic. You need to roll back to what we always knew of as quality education. Keep an accountability measure. That's key. ... We believe in accountability, but not to this level. It is just causing, we believe, irreparable harm to our children. It's certainly not building a love of learning. It's not.
Related stories: Students may opt out of FCAT pre-tests, Sun-Sentinel, 11/7/07; 51,000 Broward students can skip FCAT practice test, Miami Herald, 11/7/07