TAMPA — Florida's education chief said he wanted to have a spirited discussion about the state's testing system — and he got it Wednesday night.
Parents, teachers and community members gave Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson an earful about the FCAT, new end-of-course exams for high school students and last week's dramatic decline in student writing scores.
"I'm sick of the FCAT for many reasons and I urge you to get rid of it," said Sarah Robinson, mother of an eighth-grader in Pinellas County.
She said art, music, physical education and field trips had all been "sacrificed on the altar of the FCAT."
Cynthia Shellabarger, mother of a fourth-grader in Hillsborough County, said teachers weren't given enough information about changes to the scoring of the state's writing test.
"They've been teaching these students to write about apples and then they're graded on oranges," she said.
The commissioner heard from about 60 people at his first "Conversations with the Commissioner" event at Hillsborough Community College. The public forum was billed as an opportunity for parents, teachers and community members to discuss education. But state education officials said they expected testing to be the focus because of the rapid roll-out this year of more rigorous assessments and last week's drop in writing scores.
To get their message out to frustrated parents, the state launched Monday a call center, websites, and a designated email address, all for parents.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1,500 people had dialed into the FCAT call center. About 2,800 "unique visitors" had visited the parent website over a two-day period and about 100 parents emailed, the state Department of Education said.
The education commissioner also is scheduled to do more public forums, with the second on Friday in Boca Raton. Several events also are in the works for next week in Jacksonville.
On Wednesday, Robinson, who was flanked by Kathleen Shanahan, chairwoman of the state Board of Education, repeated that it's important for the state to measure student learning.
"The FCAT is important, (end-of-course) exams are important," he said.
He said students need to have a skill set to ensure success at college. Shanahan agreed: "Do we want to have our kids graduate from high school and compete in a global world?"
That message resonated with some in the audience. Julius Newton, a retired college professor, said too many students arrive in college without the reading comprehension skills to succeed there.
"Standards should be enhanced for our students to compete," he said.
Others said that testing had taken the place of teaching.
"We were told that these tests would never be used against our kids. They're used every day against our kids," said Jeanie Parrish, of Hillsborough County.
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Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.