Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson wants to raise the minimum scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for grades 3-10. Without evidence, he claims the tougher test will help our high school graduates become college-ready. The Florida Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Monday.
While not publicly opposing higher minimum scores, many superintendents, including Pinellas County's John Stewart, argue that our schools have more pressing matters to tackle than a single high-stakes test.
In a prepared statement, Stewart said schools should "be focusing on encouraging students to take the most challenging courses possible, work at their fullest capacity, and achieve at their highest level. If we all spent more time concentrating on that, we wouldn't have to be concerned about the results of changing FCAT cut scores a few degrees one way or the other."
Although I agree with Stewart's broad perspective, I sought the views of an excellent teacher who works closely with students in the classroom every day, whose very career is measured in large part by her students' performance on the FCAT.
I spoke with nine-year veteran Melissa Heeren. This term, she teaches AP Computer Science and Introduction to Information Technology at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg.
How would higher FCAT cut scores impact teachers and their students?
"Teachers define goals and learning objectives before creating a lesson plan. My biggest question is: What is the goal of the higher cut scores? What are we trying to do? Is the concern that the current cut scores allow unqualified students to graduate from high school?
"Where is the data analysis identifying this problem? In the absence of solid answers to these questions, the move to raise the cut scores seems motivated by politics rather than sound education goals.
"Higher cut scores will cause more students to fail the FCAT. They then will be placed in remedial reading and math classes. These are often the students who are most difficult to keep engaged in school. The very classes that make school less of a drudgery for struggling students — art, music, journalism and other electives — will be cut off from them. More students may become disheartened and drop out altogether. With such consequences for our kids, any change needs to be solidly justified.
"With higher cut scores, I imagine school grades will drop. More schools will fall under state oversight with all the bureaucratic demands that will place on the district, school administrators and teachers.
"Politicians play a game where they can change the rules at any time. Changing the cut scores will increase the pressure on teachers, and more time will be spent on FCAT prep and less time on subject area content."
That's the downside. Do you see any real benefits from raising the cut scores?
"There is a disconnection between elementary and middle school FCAT success and high school FCAT failure. I don't believe our students get less able as they age. Are the early FCAT tests insufficiently challenging? Is the high school test too difficult or flawed in some way? I think these questions need to be investigated using solid statistical analysis. When we have identified the problem, we should move to finding the solution. Raising the cut scores without this information reminds me of a sign I saw that said, 'Ready, Fire, Aim.' "
Specifically, how does the FCAT hamper what you and other teachers do in your classrooms?
"Because of the focus on the FCAT, more time is spent on test strategies and teaching literacy strategies in all classrooms. That time has to come from somewhere, and sometimes it is at the expense of the subject content. For example, you teach how to read a question on World War II rather than learning the facts about World War II.
"Students are also given frequent pre-FCAT assessments and practices, all of which take place instead of instruction. I know a middle school math teacher who estimates that up to 10 percent of his class time is spent on these assessments and practices.
"Real students' futures will be affected by raising cut scores. The dust has barely settled on the first administration of the new FCAT 2.0. It would be nice to evaluate the effects of the new test on our students before making changes to how the test is used."