Tougher FCAT holds negative consequences: rise in failures, erosion of public confidence in public schools

A backlash against high-stakes standardized tests in public schools is spreading across the nation as critics petition for an overhaul that bases student evaluations on a broader range of learning. The movement began in Texas with more than 400 school districts joining a campaign for reform, and that effort inspired last week's launch of national effort via an online petition drive.

Florida's education policy writers and leaders should take note.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest, helped write the petition, which has already attracted support from more than 100 organizations and several thousand individuals. FairTest's mission is "to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial."

The organization's public education director, Robert Schaeffer, put the issue into a perspective that should resonate in Florida. "What we're seeing is a disconnect between the popular support of people saying, 'Enough is enough,' and policy makers who are doubling down on high-stakes testing," he stated in a New York Times report last week. "We're building popular pressure to persuade policy makers to abandon a failed task."

Indeed, the Sunshine State is doubling down -- with a tougher Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that promises to fail more students and more public schools. The test measures proficiency in reading, writing, math and science from third through 10th grades.

As the state continues to transition away from FCAT to end-of-course exams in core classes, with passage a requirement for graduation, Schaeffer has noted in the past that the change is not an improvement.

Earlier this month, Manatee County school district officials even warned parents and students right before the start of this spring's FCAT testing period of that likely disheartening outcome.

FCAT scoring standards have been raised, thousands of additional 10th-graders are expected to flunk, and school districts around the state are bracing for significant increases in the number of "D" and "F" schools as a result of the changes in grading calculations.

The ramifications are greater than the disgrace of a poor grade. Public schools that score higher grades earn bonus funds. Meanwhile, underperforming schools in need of additional resources in order to improve are left wanting.

Promoted as a way to raise education standards and improve school accountability, how could a harder FCAT possibly be productive by excoriating so many more students and schools as failures?

Or is this punitive, designed to undermine public confidence in the school system and drive a wedge between parents and public schools in order to advance the charter school movement? This could be an unintended consequence, but we have our doubts considering the Republican-dominated Legislature has pursued a public policy course in favor of charters for the past six years.

This year, lawmakers failed to pass a measure that would have allowed parents of students in F schools to petition for a conversion of the public school into an independently operated, for-profit charter school. The so-called parent trigger bill, criticized as a way to dismantle and defund the state's public education system, was only defeated by a tie vote in the Senate as several Republicans broke ranks.

The charter school lobby had won impressive victories in prior legislative sessions, but not this year. The movement is certain to return next year with another ambitious agenda to further privatize education.

Meanwhile, critics of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools warn against basing critical decisions on scores. Such testing has resulted in narrower curriculums with instructors teaching to the test -- especially since their salaries are now partly determined by student test scores in Florida and elsewhere across the country.

With high pressure on teachers, cheating scandals have erupted. While a crackdown on cheating is imperative, a comprehensive overhaul of standardized testing should follow. Students are denied a high-quality, well-rounded education by this singular focus on standardized tests to measure achievement, as mandated by the flawed No Child Left Behind law.

Florida's tougher FCAT -- certain to flunk more students and schools -- only exacerbates the current misguided reliance on standardized testing.