MIAMI -- Declaring Florida public schools healthy, education officials in the Sunshine State have touted overall student improvements there as a direct result of education reforms involving revamped student assessment tools such as the standardized test FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) 2.0, and more rigorous teacher-performance measures.
“Over the last ten years we’ve seen significant change in how well our students are doing. In reading for grades 3-10, the percentage of students that are performing satisfactorily has increased 15 percent. For math it has increased 18 percent. For our English language learners, they increased by 15 percent, and increased in math by 20 percent. So we are seeing large changes in the positive direction for our students with the implementation of this accountability system," said Jane Fletcher, Florida Department of Education’s Director of Accountability and Policy Research.
Addressing journalists at a briefing on education reform hosted by New America Media and the Urban League of Greater Miami, Fletcher was quick to point out that the new measurement systems create clear expectations for both teachers and students.
“Essentially, teachers don’t have to do anything special, all they need to do is teach the standards. If they teach the standards the students are supposed to learn, then the students will do well, and if the students learn the standards they will do well on the assessments."
But for critics of standardized testing, that's just the problem. Long criticized as a system that creates successful test takers but not educated students, there are questions as to whether standardized tests like the FCAT are true measures of a student's preparedness to succeed in life, after they leave school.
And the tests, say critics, do not capture the experience of students who drop out of school before even taking the test -- and a disproportionate number of those are students of color.
The latest report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that analyzed numbers from 1972 to 2009, revealed that the high school drop out rate for Blacks was 4.8 percent and 5.8 percent for Hispanics while the rates for Whites stood at 2.4 percent.
How does the Florida education system, and indeed the U.S. education system, catch these students that have been allowed to fall through the cracks?
“We are trying to reach kids earlier in the system when they are at the level when they can be positively influenced by additional instruction, reading, intensive help at the elementary level... It is a big area of concern,” admitted Edward Croft, the department’s Bureau Chief for Accountability Reporting.
Croft, who heads the office that rates schools with grades from A through F based on student achievement on the FCAT, maintains that the measure is a good one.
“We are looking at whether students have been able to increase their achievement level from year to year. Or, if they were at a satisfactory achievement level, whether they were able to maintain that year over year. For kids that are stuck at the lowest achievement level--1 or 2 on the FCAT--if they’ve made enough of an increase on the FCAT vertical scale year to year, they can still demonstrate learning gains... For kids that were low performers last year who made greater than expected gains this year, they are getting extra weighting in the school grades calculations,” Croft explained.
The point is, assessments are good and necessary to determine a child’s readiness to move on to the next level. However, when negative statistics such as the drop out rates mentioned above, are stubbornly holding on, it is time to reevaluate how children are being tested.
Yet state education officials remain adamant that the FCAT works, and are pushing for its continued use.
“If the teachers just teach the standards the way they are supposed to, then I think the students will have the materials to be successful on the test,” said Fletcher.
The operative phrase here is “successful on the test” not "successful at learning."
Teacher evaluation systems also rely heavily on FCAT, although other measures are also taken into consideration. Importantly, this process involves input from various stakeholders including administrators, other teachers, and parents.
Juan C. Copa, the education department’s Director of Research & Analysis in Educator Performance, warned that the much talked about teacher evaluations should not be regarded as punitive.
“It is meant to transform the way we look at teachers and school leaders to ensure they are pursuing the best practices to improve student performance. The results from these evaluations can be used to inform school level and district level improvement plans as well as professional development opportunities for teachers...so that we can get to the ultimate goal of improving student performance.”
The teacher evaluation, based on Florida’s Student Success Act, focuses on three areas: Performance of students, instructional practice, and professional and job responsibility. But, according to Copa, at least 50 percent of the review is based on student performance, or FCAT results.