Aedan Bennett is not much of an eater, especially when he's nervous.
But he had a healthy dinner the night before his first Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and forced down breakfast in the morning — a waffle, he thinks.
"It was really nervous for me because it was my first time taking FCAT," said Aedan, 9. "I wasn't sure if it would be hard questions or just like the other tests that we always do.
"I shouldn't have worried, though, because I finished in the right amount of time."
Throughout Hillsborough County, educators and parents have spent the last few weeks riding a roller-coaster of news about the ever-changing FCAT.
They learned that reading scores would be well below last year's, had the state Department of Education not readjusted last year's scores to produce a more even comparison.
This year's writing scores were so low, the state hurriedly changed the threshold for passing.
School board members weighed in on how to fix what some consider a crisis in credibility. There's talk in Hillsborough of joining a national movement to cut down on high-stakes tests.
But what do kids think? "They're the ones that take it," said Denyse Riveiro, principal of MacFarlane Park Elementary School, a west Tampa magnet for international studies.
Riveiro, a big believer in critical thinking and child-centered instruction, invited a reporter to discuss the FCAT experience with a select group of students in grades 3, 4 and 5. She wishes children had more input in the test itself. "Anything that we do here, we always have student input," she said.
The kids spoke candidly about the limitations of the tests. They described stress at home and in school, despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers.
The general consensus: Standardized tests are probably necessary, although not much of a learning experience.
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Harrison Pruett, 11, plays basketball and draws cartoons. When he reads, he likes fiction, preferably action and adventure.
He doesn't find much of either on the reading FCAT.
"Most of the time it's like, 'Ooh, Susie dropped her phone and what are we going to do?' " he said. "'We're going to go fix it at the store,' and it's not really that exciting. And the questions are boring. It's like: 'How did Susie drop her phone?' "
The tests are easy enough, he said. But he's not sure he's learning much from the experience.
"When you take a regular test, the teacher grades it and she sees what you need to work on,'' he said. "But in FCAT they score it and then they give it to you. They don't say what you need to work on, really, and it affects the teacher."
Even in elementary school, kids are aware of the implications for their teachers and schools in the age of accountability.
"If the student does bad, it will reflect on the student. It will affect his or her further years in school and college," said Sojeet Sharma, 11.
"And it will reflect on the teacher because (if the scores are low) it will probably harm their reputation a little bit."
Riveiro asked the kids: Do these tests give an accurate picture of who a child is? Would it make sense for children to select the passages and write the questions?
None of the seven children in the group felt particularly comfortable in that role. Most feared they'd chose a math question that was too easy or a reading passage that appealed to one student and not another.
But the mechanics of the test troubled them. Some parents made them go to bed much earlier, at 7:30 p.m.
Also, the potential for cheating became an issue.
"On the FCAT, our desks are separated," Sojeet said. "On regular tests they're just put together."
Clearly there was more pressure than on regular tests.
"Pressure as in, if you fail the FCAT, you're going to fail everything," Sojeet said. Then he corrected himself: "It's not really like that. If you fail the FCAT it's bad, but not you're a failure."
Valezka Doronio, 11, said she breezed through most of the tests. "Science, reading and everything else except for math," she said. "Math got harder." Knowing that was her weakest subject, she studied with her father.
Braden Heller, 11, resolved to "get through it in one piece."
When the tests were over, he said, he was bored. "I just sit there. I can just feel my mind drifting away."
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At 10, Anika Nayak is a member of the fourth-grade Battle of the Books team. And, when it comes to FCAT, a realist.
"It's a test," she said. "A test that determines what class you are going to next year. I believe in myself, that I'm going to pass in the next grade. So I do try my best on FCAT. I listen to the teachers, pay attention."
FCAT "is not the test like for life," she said. Still, "when you move on to the different grades, you're going to take tests. If you don't know how to take a test and one day you have to, you'll get a very low score."
Like a lot of kids and parents, she was not a fan of the writing assignments which this year included an essay about an imaginary camel ride.
"They should pick a more familiar topic," she said. "Like, 'where is your dream place?' Everybody has a dream place. Or a place that you want to go."
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By the time Ella Mendelowitz enters high school, the nation may have yet another universal competency test.
For now, at 9, she's acclimating to FCAT.
"It was kind of like another practice test," she said. She was confident she knew the material.
"I was thinking, like because it's FCAT, it's going to be hard. I think we were all ready because of our teachers."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]