ODESSA — Allyson Matiyak stood before her third-grade students, the pages of the class reading assignment projected onto a large screen, and asked the children to compare and contrast the different types of plants they had studied.
Boys and girls eagerly raised their hands to respond as Matiyak put their answers in a diagram for easy reference. Everyone knew they were working on an FCAT reading skill, but not one time did the test name come up.
Students need to understand the importance of the annual exam — particularly third-graders, who could end up repeating the grade if they fare poorly, Matiyak said. But it does no good to put so much emphasis on the test that it makes kids anxious every day, she said.
"You have to remember that they are 8 and 9 years old," she said. "So I try not to talk too much about it."
As the Florida Legislature debates tying teacher pay more closely to their students' test scores, though, Matiyak admits to thinking twice about focusing more heavily on the test.
"I definitely think there is an amount of pressure on the teachers," she said. "A lot of the time I wish we could just teach. … I worry about the FCAT taking the fun and excitement out of the school day."
The Florida Senate could move ahead as early as this week with a bill that would change teacher working conditions. The United School Employees of Pasco has urged its members to blitz the sponsor, Jacksonville Republican Sen. Steve Wise, with letters urging him to at the very least to answer outstanding questions about his proposal.
Wise has said he wants to hear from teachers and others with interest in the laws governing teacher quality, unlike last year when Senate Bill 6 soared through the Legislature with limited debate despite a public outcry. Former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that bill, but the ideas did not go away.
Now, as schools move closer to another year of testing, the discussion is back. And along with it is the conversation about whether educators teach to the test to protect their livelihoods.
The Legislature passed a law a couple of years back banning what they deemed "FCAT frenzy" — essentially the all-consuming attention to testing, to the exclusion of the rest of the curriculum. The test is based on the state standards, they said, and so if teachers simply teach well, they shouldn't have to worry.
Odessa Elementary principal Teresa Love buys that line of reasoning.
"I do not believe in FCAT prep," Love said. "If you are teaching students from the beginning of the school year and using best practices and teaching the standards, the students will be ready."
That doesn't mean not talking about the FCAT.
Kids already know all about it from parents, older siblings, even textbook prompts. But it also doesn't mean making a big deal about it with rallies or all-school practice tests.
She believes it's the right way to go. She also worries about it.
"I worry that the kids are not going to show what they really know on the test. I worry about the consequences for the children themselves, as well as for the school and the letter grade," Love said. "I don't sleep well at night."
Kids worry, too. Some third-graders said that whatever their teachers do regarding FCAT, rather than just "regular stuff," already is too much.
"We talk about it often in school," said Madisyn Thompson, 8, as she worked on an independent reading project. "I was nervous in second and first grade when we had the same kind of test, except it was easier."
"It would be better for me if I didn't hear of it, because sometimes I get nervous that I'm not going to pass," said Tai Ashford, 9, while working on a vocabulary assignment.
Third-grade teacher Billie Sass said she tries to ignore the pressures and get her students to realize that they are ready for the test. That means she has to rise to the challenge, too, she said. If the Legislature wants to raise the ante, Sass said, she's ready for it.
"The FCAT stuff doesn't stress me out," she said. "It's kind of like motivation to get your kids to do well."
Jenna Henry, also on the third-grade teaching team at Odessa, said lawmakers will do what they do. That can't change her way of dealing with her class — limited stress on FCAT, plenty of focus on the learning that must take place to pass it.
"I can't really control what they're going to do up there" in Tallahassee, Henry said. "If you do what you are supposed to do, hopefully it will all fall into place."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.