Monday, December 18, 2017
Opinion

Testing has been key in improving Florida schools

The FCAT. Just the name evokes strong feelings, from frustration to annoyance, and even anxiety. While the debate on whether this test should be the test for our students is ongoing, it is important to understand the status of education in Florida before the FCAT and just how far our students have come.

Last week, I spoke with locally elected school board officials from all across our state who were gathered in part to discuss the value of meaningful learning assessments for our students. We all agree that a break from the rhetoric and a look at the facts can serve as a useful guide as we consider the next generation of reforms in our state. The results of more than a decade of data show that student assessments have been critical in the quest to provide a quality public education for Florida's children.

Before reforms, Florida's students were passed from grade to grade with only a minimal understanding of how much they learned and where they needed to improve. Recognizing the need to measure our students' progress, parents, teachers and elected officials developed Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Test during the tenure of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in an effort to end the ineffective polices of social promotion and ensure every child in Florida is learning. The result has been a sea change in the way our children learn, and the progress has been undeniable.

Without FCAT, Florida's schools would still be mired in mediocrity and more than a decade of students deprived of a quality education. Consider that in 1998, nearly half of Florida's fourth-graders were functionally illiterate, while today, 72 percent can read. Florida's Hispanic and African-American students outpace the national graduation rate average by 10 and 3.5 percentage points, respectively.

Hispanic female graduates top the nation with 77.5 percent of female students graduating, more than 10 percentage points higher than the national average of 66.1 percent, while Florida's Hispanic graduating class ranks second in the nation overall. Florida's African-American male students exceed the national graduation rate average by 4 percentage points. Additionally, last year, Florida's high school graduation rate topped 80 percent — 10 points higher than where it was in 2007.

This progress didn't happen by accident. It happened because Florida's stakeholders in education cared enough to shake up the status quo. And because of their reforms, Florida's students are achieving more than ever before.

Testing isn't unique to education. Every day, we trust doctors, police officers and firefighters to save lives, protect and serve. We use a test to certify their knowledge and to qualify them for their job. For students, too, assessment remains the most effective way to measure their achievement. In our data-driven society, progress is measured everywhere, and our schools should not be the exception.

Unfortunately, some are seeking to politicize the issue of assessment. In reality, it's a commonsense idea shared by leaders from both sides of the aisle, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who believes "American education cannot move forward without a system for knowing where we are succeeding, where we are improving, and where we are struggling."

Clearly, education is an issue that should rise above the partisan bickering that has unfortunately become all too common in the halls of Tallahassee and Washington.

Without comprehensive assessments, educators wouldn't know which students are thriving and which students are falling behind. Educators use the metrics made available after a student takes the FCAT to provide students with the help and support they need, including access to reading coaches, opportunities to learn at summer reading camps, longer school days and specialized learning plans developed by parents and teachers. More than a decade ago, these students would fall through the cracks, but today they are receiving individualized attention to improve their scores and find success.

The truth is that we owe it to our students to provide them with quality education, not an education that is taught to the test, but an education based on sound standards that will develop the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy. We should continue to raise the bar, not move backward. The reward will be the empowerment of a generation of Floridians prepared to lead our nation through the next great era of American ingenuity and innovation.

Will Weatherford is the speaker-designate of the Florida House of Representatives, a Republican and a state representative from Wesley Chapel.

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