Tampa Bay parents overwhelmingly believe the state-required FCAT standardized test is an unreliable measure of student and school performance, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 poll.
"I just find it a very antiquated system," said Oscar Peña, 38, a Pasco County father of two who was among 702 public school parents surveyed.
The public vote of distrust comes months after some of Florida's most powerful school superintendents also questioned the accuracy of the 12-year-old exam's results.
Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who was among the superintendents this summer to question the reliability of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, is already asking her school board to explore adding another test to the curriculum because, in the words of the agenda item, "the integrity of the data received from state testing programs has become questionable."
"My big push is to make sure there is reliability with the test," said Elia, "and that we continue to work hard to build a test that is reflective of what kids are doing. I don't think it should be the only thing. I think there should be a balance."
Seventy-six percent of parents polled said they believe the FCAT is overemphasized in schools, a perception that carried across age, race, county, gender and economic lines. Fifty-two percent said the FCAT doesn't accurately reflect either their child's performance or their school's performance.
For Peña's household, it means his sixth-grader's study time increases after the winter break as the FCAT testing date nears. Though the boy has never done poorly on the test, Peña said he watches his son's stress level visibly heighten during test-taking period. Time for after-school activities wanes.
"Sometimes, we're like, 'We all just need a break,' " said Peña. "We always try to create a high standard in our house. But this really just creates high anxiety. It's more than just a student being graded."
The FCAT, known formally as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is given annually to Florida students in Grades 3 through 11. It has been used to determine such decisions as whether a third-grader passes to the fourth grade, a senior graduates and whether a school should be graded A, B, C, D or F.
But as dialogue about the FCAT's reliability continues to rage, state leaders already are starting to incorporate other measures of student success into determining high school grades and graduation eligibility.
For the first time this year, high schoolers will be asked to take end-of-course exams.
And when they are released in November, high school grades for 2009-10 will incorporate something other than just FCAT scores — they also will reflect graduation rate and how students did in advanced courses such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement.
"I think there is an effort in the state to be responsive to looking at this in a more sophisticated way," said Florida Commissioner of Education Eric Smith, who called the legislation that changed how high schoolers are measured, "some of the best legislation in the country."
So, does all this mean the FCAT has jumped the shark?
Neither Elia nor Smith sounded surprised that parents would sound off in opposition to FCAT.
"Tests are not things that people just absolutely fall in love with," Smith said. "There is all this tension around tests, whether you call it an FCAT or a college admissions test or whether you call it a bar exam."
But both education leaders said it is important to have a way to measure whether public schools are doing a good job educating students.
"I think that in some places, it's not in balance," said Elia. "In some situations perhaps there's more emphasis placed on, 'This is FCAT, this is FCAT, this is FCAT.' When in fact the skill that's being taught is something you want students to be able to do. The view the parent gets is that it's all FCAT related when in fact it doesn't have to be."
Emphasis on the test
Tamara Ashley, 54, mother of two boys, one a Gaither High senior and another a Gaither graduate, said that when she enrolled her children in public school in the 4th and 6th grades, she was immediately floored by all the talk of the infamous state test.
"My philosophy is that if you teach kids what they need to know, then they won't have any trouble passing the FCAT," said Ashley, who said she also gets the impression that the emphasis of school these days is on the test rather than the learning.
Both Ashley and Peña said that when assessing their children's performance, they put more stock in their children's day-to-day class work and grades than they do in an FCAT test score. That holds true to the parent survey as well. Only 12 percent said the FCAT is the best measure of their child's academic performance, while 35 percent said semester class grades were the top measure and 33 percent said classroom test grades were most important.
Ashley and Peña also said that while their children attend highly rated schools, the grade was not what attracted them to their schools. Neighborhood and word of mouth, they said, were more important deciding factors.
After looking over some of the poll results himself, Smith said he's not inattentive to the concern.
"I think we need to pay attention to what parents are saying," he said. "I do think that if you were to ask parents, 'Should schools be accountable for the education of my child?' I think parents would say yes. And in order to do that, I have to measure it somehow — and it has to be a reliable measure, not just something made up at the local level. So, I think the survey certainly tells an important story that we need to be sensitive to. But there's much more to the story that we need to learn."
Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.