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  1. Education

Time to ring the bell on FCAT

Published May 20, 2012

Children are crying, parents are obsessing, and educators are sweating.

Forgive me if I'm reading too much into this, but is it possible we've let standardized testing get out of control?

Because what we witnessed in recent days did not look like education. It looked like big shots covering their butts while ordinary folks screamed "I told you so." It looked like policymakers justifying something that should be above the need for justification.

It looked like politicians playing with people's lives.

That's right: It's FCAT season again in Florida. The test that swallows an entire education system is back.

Honestly, the details are not even that important anymore. The bigger issue is the power this test wields and the havoc it occasionally wreaks.

From its admirable origin as a way to raise educational standards, the test has grown to gargantuan proportions. It is now used to grade schools and withhold funding. It is used to evaluate teachers and determine pay raises. It is used to brand children as winners or losers and decide if they are allowed to move on.

"We run the risk of telling kids, 'You've gone to school X amount of years, and you didn't learn anything.' That's a scary thought,'' Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes said. "One test should not determine a child's ability to succeed.''

Valdes is the chairwoman of the Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition, a 10-county group that unveiled an FCAT study last week. It suggests the test has overstepped its original aim, has rung up huge costs in both funds and class time, and has inherent faults as a quality measure.

Other than that, the FCAT seems like a swell idea.

Even before the coalition's study was released, the Palm Beach County School Board adopted a resolution criticizing the state's dependence on standardized tests.

And an Orange County School Board member with two master's degrees and 14 years on the board recently failed both the reading and math portions of a sample 10th grade FCAT.

The problem is not that the FCAT itself is worthless. The problem is that it has been given a disproportionate amount of worth. There are no checks and balances.

It doesn't matter if a child has been an exemplary student all year. It doesn't matter if the test asks too many ambiguous questions. It doesn't matter if Jupiter is in the seventh house. Fail the FCAT, and you're doomed.

What people forget is it was never meant to have so much influence. Even when then-Education Commissioner Frank Brogan was pushing the FCAT in 1998, he acknowledged that too many tests might be counterproductive and schools should not mold curriculum to fit the FCAT.

"We don't want to overdo it because classroom time is so valuable,'' Brogan said in '98. "Over time, I believe that will be less of a problem.''

Instead, the opposite is true.

The central Florida coalition counted 16 standardized tests currently being used in various grades.

Will things change when the FCAT is replaced in 2014-15 by the Common Core national test? Not if the state continues to put all its faith in standardized tests rather than the evidence of an entire year.

By tying the careers of principals and teachers to the FCAT, we've put them on edge and created an even more frantic atmosphere for kids.

At this point, haven't we learned enough?

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