FCAT and the role of standardizing testing: Fair, friend or foe?

School of Communication
University of Miami

“During the school year kids like myself are made to feel like FCAT is pretty much our life because of the constant pressure we have to make our teachers and school look good. So, if you don’t pass the FCAT in March you kind of feel like this dumb person. A lot of students in my school who don’t pass the FCAT are being held back now but during the school year they get As and Bs and I just think that isn’t fair.”

Marcel Wolfgang Dussard, 14
aspiring social worker,
eighth grader
Coral Springs Charter School
Coral Springs, Fla.

In South Florida, there is a major concern regarding the FCAT (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) and how the public and communities (teachers, students, parents, and administration) view the major impact of standardized testing on the futures of our youth.

Tracy A. Sumpter, a Greater Miami YMCA Grant Contract Compliance Supervisor and  Florida International University graduate addressed the social and emotional impact standardized tests like FCAT have on youth today.

With six years of experience in youth services and Public Administration, Sumpter stated that the exam is not helpful to most school children.

“For the most part I have seen more of a negative effect of standardized testing on youth’s emotional and social development,” Sumpter stated.“Children of testing age seem to suffer from stress in result of worrying about passing the test; and negative results more often than not yield low-self-esteem, higher incidents of seclusion and lower academic progress. Children who pass the test are just happy to be done with it and gain no real sense of achievement.”

Essentially, how do schools use standardized testing?

Standardized testing is a form of assessment. Schools use standardized tests to determine if children are ready for school to track them into instructional groups; to diagnose for learning disability, retardation and other handicaps; and to decide whether to promote, retain in grade, or graduate many students. Schools also use tests to guide and control curriculum content and teaching methods.

Niah Thompsom, a first-grader at South Miami Community Center, reads a 2nd grade level book in the Center’s Education room (Photo by Jamie N. Stephens).

FCAT is administered annually, to all public school students in grades three through 11. Students in grades three through 10 are required to take the reading and math portion every year.

Private and parochial school students are not required to take the FCAT.

“Standardized tests seem to be a double edged sword. On one hand they can help a student get the extra necessary academic assistance they need depending on test results in particular subjects or all around. On the other hand failing one particular test can spell the end of a child’s progress academically and professionally. A huge flaw in the system is the exclusion of standardized testing in private schools, while they are mandatory for public schools. Again it goes back to what type of resources and academic tools a child has at their disposal in order to be successful,” said Sumpter.

Students’ results from the FCAT are compiled to generate an overall score or grade for each public school. Under this plan, public schools receive a grade from A to F, depending on student performance and the degree to which the bottom 25 percent of the school has improved compared to its past performances. The higher a public school scores, the more funding it receives.

After passage of the “No Child Left Behind Act” by the U.S. Congress in 2001, the mandatory passage was moved from fourth grade down to third grade. In addition to the third grade requirement, public school students in Florida must also pass the 10th grade FCAT, not only in reading, but also in mathematics, in order to be eligible to receive a high school diploma.

“I’ve been teaching in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system for 34 years with most of those years taught at Coral Gables High School in Florida, so when the “No Child Left Behind Act” came into play in 2001, I said to myself, “now I don’t know how they (legislatures) expect children to absorb and utilize some of these standardized methods when they barely remember or use them in their current professions themselves. Though their intentions are well, ultimately they need to better understand the student evaluation process from a teacher’s point of view said Dr. Joyce Corces, former mathematics teacher, high school department head and University of Miami Teaching and Learning department faculty educator and lecturer.

“A plague has been sweeping through American schools, wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers and administrators. Ironically, that plague has been unleashed in the name of improving schools. Invoking such terms as “tougher standards,” “accountability,” and “raising the bar,” people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy-handed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country,” wrote education critic Alfie Kohn, from his novels, The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards,” and  The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools.

First graders play and interact in Murray Park’s playground during outside activities of South Miami Community Center after-school program (Photo by Jamie N. Stephens).

Many South Florida parents, teachers, students and community leaders downright protest FCAT and accuse it’s standardization of being unfair and potentially biased to low-income minorities.

“Though there are good points of standardized testing like, for example, how it makes teachers more aware that they are accountable there are also disadvantages. For one, the school system is trying to make every kid achieve a certain level despite their background or ability and furthermore there are a major portion of kids who just aren’t good test takers and its wrong that we subject them to tests like FCAT,” stated Corces.

According to Fair Test, the National Center for Open and Fair Testing, in October 2003, the Florida chapter of the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state’s education department alleging that the FCAT discriminates against minority students whose schools lack the resources white students have to pass the test.

Since minority schools often have poorer facilities and resources, the NAACP said, Florida violated its constitutional duty to give an equal and quality education to all students. Federal court decisions in the 1970s and 1980s in the Debra P v Turlington case established that the state had to provide an adequate opportunity to learn before imposing a graduation test.

Ultimately, most teachers when they’re not teaching math and reading claim that they are teaching test prep strategies and taking assessments.

Stephanie Blum, a special education seventh and eighth grade science instructor at Zelda Glazer Middle School who has taught for 22 years in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system notes that FCAT has made some progress in pushing reading levels, as she’s seen 10th grade student’s much closer to grade-level reading in comparison to the early 1980s and late 1990s when she witnessed many of them struggling on third grade reading level.

“Because there is so much pressure, its taken away the love of learning. Kids aren’t as eager to learn and with teachers it takes away a lot of the creativity. They tell us weekly what to do so the art of teaching is sort of lost,” said Blum.

Research in child development confirms that both formal and informal teaching styles are dually important in the classroom in order for students to successfully learn into the future.

“There has to be a balance and equal framework of what we need to accomplish and our flexibility during the school year. We need to be allowed to be creative and autonomous as long as we accomplish success at the end of the term,” said Blum.

In a detailed October 2001 survey, from Fair Test., Miami-Dade teachers expressed strong opposition to the FCAT. According to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Office of Research, 87 percent said decisions should not be based on a single test, though the FCAT is now a graduation exam.

Three-quarters believe classroom grades should determine student promotion, and two-thirds think grades should determine high school graduation. Eighty-two percent said the test unfairly impacts minorities, and 74 percent think there is too much teaching to the test, with 62 percent concluding this hurts the quality of education.

“Standardized testing presents the problems of “teaching for a test.” The pressure that passing the tests causes, often limits the information we teach a student within the school year. It also creates the issue of sustaining the focus of the students once the test has been completed. Students often believe that once testing is over, they no longer have new information to learn for the duration of the school year,” said Tia Hendricks, a first-year educator and sixth grade substitute math teacher in downtown Miami.

In June 2003, when FCAT was at its height of failing South Florida youth, particularly adolescent minorities, a prominent Miami-Dade public official and second term President of the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP (the nation’s oldest civil rights organization) Bishop Victor T. Curry, referred to the FCAT as the “Florida Child Abuse Test.”

He also argued that it was unfair for the state to withhold diplomas from seniors who do not pass the 10th-grade FCAT and automatically retain third-graders for failing the FCAT reading test.

“We’re not saying our children are not intelligent enough to pass a test,” he said. “What we’re fighting against is what is called high-stakes testing…one test should not determine a child’s future,” stated Curry.

Florida Department of Education’s 2010 FCAT Demographics Report graph displaying 10th grade FCAT passing percentages for the Miami-Dade County district schools (Graphic by Jamie Stephens).

“States and districts should not bar students from graduating based solely on standardized test scores. The Standards on Educational and Psychological Testing of the American Psychological Association, American Educational Research Association and National Council on Measurement in Education states that a major decision about a student should not be made “on the basis of a single test score.”

“It seems as if students are suffering from academic burn-out at an early age. While tests are important to gauge a student’s progress over a period of time, using one test to determine a child’s academic success seems to hurt rather than help,” said Sumpter.

“In 2003, approximately 12,500 Florida high school seniors were denied diplomas because they had not passed the FCAT. Of the 6,500 students in the Miami-Dade school district who had not passed by March 51 percent were Hispanic and 41 percent were African American. In addition, approximately 40,000 third graders state-wide were threatened with being retained on the basis of their FCAT scores,” according to Fair Test, The National Center for Open and Fair Testing.

According to Fair Test, “students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds are hurt the most by these standardized tests as more of these particular students are likely to be retained in grade, placed in a lower track, or put in special or remedial education programs when it is not necessary. This only ensures they will fall further and further behind their peers. On the other hand, children from white, middle and upper income backgrounds are more likely to be placed in “gifted and talented “or college preparatory programs where they are challenged to read, explore, investigate, think and progress rapidly.

Furthermore, states should allow schools and districts to use high-quality alternatives to end-of-course exams. For example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium won the right to substitute performance assessment tasks in lieu of four out of five high stakes Regents exams. This approach to assessment leads to innovative curricular design and teaching. Studies of the consequences of such alternatives, including success in college, should be conducted, as the Consortium schools have done.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is the only economically advanced nation to rely heavily on multiple-choice tests. Other nations use performance-based assessment where students are evaluated on the basis of real work such as essays, projects and activities. Ironically, because these nations do not focus on teaching to multiple-choice tests, they even score higher than U.S. students on those kinds of tests,” says Fair Test.

Often standardized testing especially that of the FCAT which is required for graduation is viewed negatively by parents, educators and employers in terms of successful academic and professional attainment for youth.

“Having taught high school in the past we forced every kid in Dade County to pass Algebra II in order to graduate with a diploma (this went into effect in late 90s). Now my thinking is if your whole goal in life is to be a nail technician then do you really need to pass Algebra II?” said Blum.

“As far as what the government, educators and parents can do to intervene or prevent potential health or social risks such as stress during the FCAT, my suggestion is that a long hard look be taken in regards to the overall effectiveness of standardized test and whether the results they yield are true indicators of students’ academic success or potentially failing school systems. Parents should get more involved and raise their own awareness about how these test are really affecting their children,” said Sumpter.

“The bottom line is that standardized testing can continue only with the consent and cooperation of the educators who allow those tests to be distributed in their schools – and the parents who permit their children to take them. If we withhold that consent, if we refuse to cooperate, then the testing process grinds to a halt. That is what happened in Japan. That is what can happen in the United States if we understand the urgency of the situation,” said Kohn.

So, are there better ways to evaluate student achievement or ability or is standardizing testing like FCAT truly enhancing our students’ education and futures? All in all, many South Floridians argue yes there are better ways such as good teacher observation, documentation of student work and performance-based assessment, all of which involve the direct evaluation of student effort on real learning tasks.

Whether society agrees or disagrees with FCAT and standardized testing in general, one thing that’s undeniable is its long-lasting impact on the youth that have to take it and pass it. As a community; teachers, parents, students and legislatures must make stronger efforts to work together to enhance our children’s future education and overall prosperity.

“I tell teachers all the time that we have to constantly tell our children that they can do it because if you believe in them children will always appreciate it. Believing in a child will cause them to believe in themselves that much more. Research will tell you that parent involvement is most important in a child’s education but you need good teachers also. It’s a partnership: the teachers need to hear from the parents and the parents need to work with the legislators and the legislators need to work with the community. Ultimately, education is about the students and working together to better our children,” said Corces.

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