A week before the fourth-grade writing exam, Shelly Ladd-Gilbert's daughter started complaining about stomachaches.
On the day of the test, the 10-year-old burst into tears, saying the pain was too severe to go to school. A trip to the doctor yielded a surprising diagnosis: severe test anxiety.
Florida has tested students for decades, but since its inception 14 years ago the FCAT has evolved from a simple measure of student learning to an all-encompassing arbiter of student, teacher and school performance. The test factors into third-grade promotion, high school graduation, class placement, teacher pay and evaluations, even whether a school stays open.
The state's signature test has become a constant thread in the community, too.
Parents use FCAT scores — and the school grades based on them — to decide where to live and what public school their child should attend. Or whether that child should go to public school at all.
Real estate agents promote neighborhoods with A-rated schools. Community leaders woo new businesses with A-rated schools. Gov. Rick Scott ranked every school in the state this year, providing even more fodder for comparison.
All based on FCAT scores.
Few educators, parents or political leaders question that the state needs a way to measure how much students are learning. And the expansion of the FCAT has brought tremendous academic gains, developing Florida's reputation as a national leader in education.
But some fear that Florida's model has turned into a runaway train of testing.
With pressure to perform, school districts have adopted their own assessments to gauge how ready students are for FCAT. That means even more testing — and little consistency from one county to another.
In Hillsborough County, third-graders alone take up to nine district-required tests in addition to the reading and math FCAT. Palm Beach County's third-graders take 11. Alachua's take 13. And in Pinellas, they take three.
For the first time, state education officials have seen a strong backlash against its signature test, and they have been forced to wage a public relations campaign to defend it.
Rather than quiet the din, the result has been an intense debate about testing and a growing chorus of voices against the widespread use of FCAT.
Sal Bologna, a Pasco County grandfather of a fourth-grader, said he likes that the state has an annual test to track student performance. But he worries about the stress it puts on children.
"If they fail the FCAT, they wind up in summer school. If they don't do well in summer school, they get left back," Bologna said. "It is a lot of pressure, especially on young people."
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Florida has a lot to show after more than a decade of ramping up standards and increasing the number of tests students take.
Graduation rates have climbed steadily. More students take advanced placement exams, and passing rates have risen. Until recently, Florida students posted some of the biggest gains in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called the "nation's report card."
Even before the FCAT, Florida had a statewide assessment system.
The state was the first in the nation to require a test for high school graduation in 1977. During that decade, it introduced testing for third, fifth, eighth and 11th grades.
Two decades later, officials decided that minimum standards weren't good enough. The FCAT was introduced in 1998, just before Gov. Jeb Bush was elected.
Under Bush the stakes changed — for everyone.
Schools became rated A to F. The spotlight suddenly focused on two grades: third and 10th, both with major testing hurdles for students.
Teachers and principals — entire schools — started to analyze student data more than ever. Students and parents learned about data. Predicting how a child would fare on the FCAT became a normal part of the parent-teacher conference.
Many teachers and school leaders say such widespread use of testing is having unintended consequences.
Susan Spaulding, who teaches in Pinellas County, said she tries to make the FCAT seem less threatening to her third-grade students by calling it the "F-Kitty." On test day, one student showed up teary-eyed. Another vomited.
Lori Moritz, a Pasco County mother, said the FCAT unnerved her daughter Alyssa, an incoming fourth-grader.
"She was nervous. She said, 'There are kids in my class already who failed the FCAT last year,' " Moritz said. "She didn't want to be one of those kids."
Ladd-Gilbert, a candidate for Pinellas County School Board, said she would rather see students tested once at the beginning of the year and once at the end to measure learning growth. But, she said, "I don't think it should be making the children sick."
Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia has not wavered on her commitment to accountability. She also hasn't hesitated to criticize state education officials for what she has seen as problems or missteps in the system.
She led a challenge of questionable 2010 FCAT results, for instance, and she blasted the state Board of Education's proposal to change the way it considers test scores for students with special-education needs this year.
But Elia said she takes a long-range view past the rhetoric that many are wielding. Testing can be used to measure student progress and how well teachers are passing along the curriculum.
"There are good uses for testing," she said.
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Most recently, Florida's lawmakers have aggressively pushed education policies that emphasize standardized testing, linking it to teacher pay and evaluation.
The state Department of Education introduced a harder FCAT last year and increased the passing scores this year.
The intense reactions this year to FCAT results, Elia suggested, are a result of so many changes coming at once, including a more difficult test, higher passing scores and a move to computerized testing, all when school districts are trying to balance their budgets with less money than they had seven years ago.
But the FCAT's reliability has raised concerns.
"When you're going to base as many different things off a test as you're basing off the FCAT — merit pay, grading of schools, whether a teacher has a job — then people need to have confidence in the test," said Lee Swift, immediate past president of the Florida School Boards Association.
In past years, glitches, human error or cost-saving measures inflated reading and writing scores and delayed test results.
None of those issues prompted the widespread backlash seen this year when the state increased passing scores on the FCAT, contributing to a statewide decline in the percentage of students scoring on grade level.
Perhaps the biggest fiasco came when the state Board of Education was forced to lower the passing scores on the writing test to account for plunging results. Even the most ardent testing supporters were left scrambling.
"The DOE and its contractor led with a glass jaw and brought some of this criticism upon themselves," said incoming state Senate President Don Gaetz.
School leaders haven't remained quiet either.
The Florida School Boards Association approved a resolution this month that says the state's "overemphasis" on testing had stifled students, limited what's taught in schools and made it difficult to keep good teachers.
State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson fired back in a public statement, suggesting that school districts, not the state, overtest students.
Swift said it's "only natural" that school districts, facing so much pressure to perform, would try to get a sense of how students are doing ahead of time. But he thought the commissioner missed the point. School leaders aren't opposed to testing; they lack confidence in the FCAT, he said.
"We want to know what students are learning and have (the test) be an accurate representation of what they're learning," he said.
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Much of the debate about the FCAT is history, Gaetz noted.
By the 2014-15 school year, the exam will be largely gone, replaced by end-of-course exams and the Common Core, a state-led effort to develop national academic standards.
"I don't think there's much to be gained by changing that course of action," Gaetz said.
Already, the science and math FCAT exams for high school students are gone. This year's incoming ninth-graders must pass end-of-course exams in algebra, biology and geometry. Similar exams are coming for U.S. history and civics.
The high stakes remain — students must now pass multiple exams to graduate from high school. Robinson has said increasing the rigor on the FCAT will better prepare Florida students for the next generation of testing.
Some parents say the transition has been needlessly painful.
"If they're doing away with the FCAT, do away with it now," Moritz said. "Why make other kids suffer?"
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.