Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Education

FCAT pressure helps students and teachers to achieve

Taking standardized tests, I hear, puts so much pressure on children that some of them vomit beforehand. Parents are upset, too. And teachers say spending so much class time preparing for tests prevents them from doing their jobs.

So the Hernando County School Board has joined a growing statewide movement to ease the burden of the FCAT, to keep students, teachers, schools and districts from being judged by the results — which sounds like a great way to ensure a future workforce of overly indulged, intellectually stunted wimps.

I don't like everything about FCATs — not vouchers, not any other sneaky attempts to privatize public education. And if there was a way to keep the stakes high and not withhold funds from schools that need it most, I'd be all for it.

But for these tests to have any meaning at all, good scores must be rewarded and poor ones punished. High stakes are the whole point.

We see this as a conservative position partly because, as everybody knows, former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush put the "F" into FCAT.

But here's another way to look at it: Government ensuring that a socially important task — probably the most important — is performed to widely agreed upon standards.

It's regulation, in other words, and no surprise, teachers resent oversight as much as business executives.

But parents? You are the consumers here. You should insist not only that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test continues to be administered but that there's a lot on the line when it is.

Because look what it has done to guarantee you get what your taxes pay for — kids prepared for work or college.

In January, the Tampa Bay Times published an in-depth report comparing districts around the state by how much FCAT writing and math scores had improved in the high-stakes era. Not if they had improved, mind you, because every one of them had.

In Hernando's case the percentage of students reading at grade level climbed from 50 percent to nearly 63 percent and in math from 50 percent to nearly 68 percent — about the same as the statewide results.

Has the test helped bring generally a higher level of seriousness and ambition to our schools? It looks that way from the results of Advanced Placement exams, which measure high school students' performance in college-level classes.

Since the advent of high-stakes testing, lots more kids take the AP exams, and even with this larger and presumably less selective pool, a much higher percentage of them pass.

In 2000, only 61 students in the district took even one AP exam, and only 30 percent achieved the score usually needed to earn college credit. In 2011, half hit that mark even though the number of students taking the test increased more than tenfold.

Of course kids test better, goes the standard response; that's all they're taught to do these days.

But, please, can somebody tell me, especially when it comes to math and reading, what in the world is wrong with that?

It's called academic rigor and judging by how many other countries are leaving the United States in the graphite dust of their No. 2 pencils, the problem here is not too much of it, but too little.

As a parent of two children in Hernando schools, I can tell you that they've had lots of great teachers who would no doubt still be great without high-stakes testing. And they've had some flat-out lousy ones, including a couple at Nature Coast Technical High School whom I'd like to sue for malpractice. If FCAT results can help identify them, and ultimately help weed them out or get them to raise their game, it would be a marvelous public service.

I can also tell you my kids have never vomited or lost much sleep before tests. But my younger son was worried enough about failing his end of year algebra test this year — and the possibility of going to summer math camp — that he asked me to help him study night after night.

If that's pressure, I'm all for it.

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