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FCAT Season From a Teacher’s Perspective: An Absurd and Demeaning Fraud

| April 15, 2012

FCAT preparation, c. 210 BC. (Kevin Poh)

I jolt awake in a cold sweat, my heart palpitating. I sit up, confused, wondering if what just transpired was real or if I’d imagined it.

“You alright?” my husband mumbles groggily. “What’s wrong?”

“Sorry I woke you. Just a nightmare,” I announce sheepishly. “Go back to sleep.”

A few hours later, as we make the bed before heading to work, Mike asks, “What was your nightmare about this time?”

“Same as the night before,” I reluctantly admit.

“Shut off your mind when you go to bed,” Mike advises. “You’re not at work 24/7. When school’s over, it’s over. Just switch off that busy brain of yours.”

Would that it were so simple. He’s right, of course, though I’ve never been nearly as good at drawing the home versus work line as he is, especially not at this time of year. Hence the subject of my nightmare: FCAT (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, now in full season at a school near you).

This time, I’d dreamt I’d incorrectly distributed the sequentially numbered, pre-assigned materials to students. In this nightmare, I’d  also gone to the wrong room and couldn’t figure out what duties I was supposed to perform  – all because I hadn’t read the dozens of FCAT memos and  the 360-page FCAT testing manual I’d received before Spring Break (though in reality I’d dutifully reviewed everything I was supposed to).

If FCAT evokes such a reaction in me, imagine what it does to students.

And it’s not just FCAT, because FCAT now only comprises just one small component of what’s grown into a literal testing nightmare for teachers and students alike, one that’s worsening with every passing school year.

The Nahirny Files:

For example, for the past several weeks, teachers have been deluged with emails (like the one that follows) regarding training, preparation and “the master plan” for the testing season. Yes, you read that right: testing season.  It used to be standardized tests took only a few days to administer. Now testing at the high school level takes nearly a quarter of the school year. What used to interrupt instructional class time for a couple of days now encompasses a full nine-week grading period.

“Teachers, please be aware there will be passes in your mailbox for the next six weeks. We have students who are not in regular classes and are scattered across the schedule on various days due to spacing issues. Only ninth and tenth grade FCAT reading tests are timed. All others are untimed with a broad spectrum of completion times. EOC’s (end-of-course exams) actually can run anywhere from three to six hours each because they are untimed and many students will take their time checking answers.

April 9-13: FCAT retakes for some 11th and 12th graders.  Passes will be in first period teachers’ mailboxes.

April 16 & 17: 9th & 10th grade FCAT reading from approximately 8 to 9:30 a.m. Students will test with regular English I and II classes followed by a shortened class schedule, while juniors will attend a presentation by Flagler Technical Institute in the auditorium and seniors will be in the cafeteria or the gym.

April 23-30: Geometry EOC exams; May 1 to 11: Biology EOC exams; May 14-18: Algebra 1 EOC exams; May 21-25: U.S. History EOC exams; May 7—18: Advanced Placement (AP)  exams. (Some students will also be on campus either Saturday, May 5 or June 2 taking the SAT.)

During testing, teachers become mere robotic proctors charged with reading page after page of scripted directions to students.  Our professional duties are debased to rearranging our normal classroom seating arrangement to ensure five feet between desks, to covering up word walls, posters or other decorations which might provide “unauthorized assistance,” and to collecting and safeguarding cell phones and other electronic devices which could interrupt or compromise test security. We are forbidden from grading papers, writing  lesson plans or performing  any other tasks except monitoring for cheating or other “irregularities.”

During my many years of administering standardized tests (everything from FCAT to ASVAB to the PSAT and more), my experiences have run the gamut from the humdrum to the outrageous. During FCAT a decade ago, a girl in my class vomited so violently that she hurled right into the hair of the student seated in front of her, thus inducing others to literally get sick to their stomachs as well. The worst part was trying to preserve the puked-upon tests (in plastic baggies) as evidence of what happened, to prove to state officials that we weren’t lying or trying to abscond with a test.

You see, when it comes to FCAT, test booklets are more closely guarded than highly classified military secrets.  Every test must be accounted for or people can lose their teaching licenses.  And pity the poor kids who get sick during the test.  They must attempt to complete the FCAT while ill. If they feel too sick to continue, or choose to go home or to the nurse, then that’s that. End of story. We’re supposed to encourage them to try to finish, because they’ll get no further opportunity to pick up where they left off once their stomach bug’s run its course in a day or two, as such tests are typically flagged “do not score.”

And it’s absurd, really, because although the Florida Department of Education wants you to believe these “high stakes tests” benefit your children and ensure they’re getting a high quality education, the bar for some of the newer tests is ridiculously low.  For example, on last year’s Algebra 1 EOC, students could earn up to 52 possible points; each question counted as one point. Students had to answer 30 questions about  “functions, linear equations and inequalities,”  10 about “polynomials” and  12  dealing with “rationals, radicals, quadratics and discrete mathematics.”   Such jargon would lead you to believe that any student who passed  must have displayed a  prodigious mastery of algebraic concepts. But in reality, the average student who took the Algebra I EOC last year earned a measly 20 points, meaning he or she got only 20 questions out of 52 (about 38 percent) correct.  It’s sickening enough that the average score in Florida was only 20 out of 52. More distressing, however, is the fact that Florida deemed 20 to be a passing score. (That 20 equates to a  399 scaled score on a 325-475 scale).

The original FCAT itself is really no better at assessing student competency than the new EOCs, despite what our governor and other “champions of education” would like you to believe about these tests. For example, students who do not pass the FCAT in tenth grade get additional opportunities to pass the test to meet graduation requirements. The vast majority ultimately do pass. But for those who struggle, there are other options, such as taking a college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT and earning a score “high” enough to equate to a “passing” score on the FCAT.

I had a student in my class last year who attempted to do just that.  She scored a Level One in both FCAT reading and  math as a tenth-grader, indicating she’d demonstrated little success with the so-called “challenging” standards FCAT is supposed to assess.  She also did not pass the FCAT retake in eleventh grade. So she registered to take the SAT in lieu of FCAT.  On the SAT, she scored a 460 in Critical Reading and a 390 in Mathematics.  (Believe me, these are not scores you’d want your college-bound child to bring home!) But guess what? Those scores were high enough for her to substitute for “passing” scores on the FCAT.  That’s because the Florida  DOE requires a mere 420 on SAT reading (about the 25th percentile) and just 340 on SAT math (about the 20th percentile) to deem a student “competent” enough to meet the “standards”  to graduate from high school.

That’s the real nightmare.

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.

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16 Responses for “FCAT Season From a Teacher’s Perspective: An Absurd and Demeaning Fraud”

  1. Flagler Native says:

    This is the EXACT reason why I homeschool. FCAT is dead wrong, putting the spotlight on a child and basing weather or not he/she is intelligent on a test. HELLO!! FDOE not every child tests in the same way. Some kids get nervous..duh. It doesn’t mean their less intelligent.
    Basically, let me get this straight. A child that is very smart and knows what he/she is doing takes the FCAT. Then he/she fails the FCAT. Then the child has to repeat and be the laughing stock of every other kid at the school, making his/her self-esteem drop down to a miniscule level. This causes a snowball effect then the child turns to drugs, alcohol what have you just to feel worthy. FCAT should be banned!!!
    Thanks for this article Flagler Live it’s nice to see a Florida teacher hates this test as well.

    This test is absolutely appalling on so many levels.

  2. "My Daily Rant" says:

    I believe this to be good practice,I want to be sure my kids are learning.You hear so much about poor teachers passing kids because they dont want them another year.This test shows me my kids are learning.I believe the more we test our kids the more they will learn.That is why their there.If your a good teacher and doing your job you have nothing to fear.

  3. Carik Andrews says:

    @My Daily Practice: I think you ought to read the article again. I think the point the teacher/writer is trying to make is that the state tests that Florida comes up with are TOO EASY. How could a kid score a 38% or a 20% or a 25% and THE STATE allows them to pass???? That is the point, not how many tests they are taking. Another thing is how can the kids learn if they have to spend 25% of the year taking tests? Absurd.

  4. Flagler teach says:

    “My Daily Rant” that last line of your comment couldn’t be more wrong. I am a good teacher. My evaluations will show you that I am highly effective and I was selected as Teacher of the Year by my peers. On testing day I can ONLY HOPE that my students use the strategies that I have taught throughout the year. I agree that standardized tests do have a place in school, but it is NOT to determine whether a student should be promoted or retained, not to determine if a teacher is effective, the amount of pay they should earn, or whether or not they keep their job. The way Florida uses this test data is truly perverted.

  5. BW says:

    Flagler Native,

    I mostly agree. The test itself has been weighted way too heavily and consumes too much time from valuable instructional time. Likewise, it has been tied to funding in a backwards manner (i.e. higher funding for better performing schools). I do feel that standardized testing should be used once a year to provide a measurement of school and teacher performance, but this particular test and the guidelines surrounding it have never been “on target’ at all.

    Now as for failing and turning to substance abuse because of it . . . I think that is stretching it. Most of the kids really don’t care to be honest with you. Some recognize the issue with it effecting their graduation and simply accommodate the educators and the pressure put on them to do well because the teachers do not want it reflecting poorly on them and their careers. The students know that they can also take the ACT, achieve a certain level, and that will satisfy their graduation requirements. BUT there have been many cases where students who would have normally graduated did not because of poor performance on the FCAT even with numerous chances. Again, not something I feel is appropriate. Bottom line is that it is a bad test, but Republicans are not going to do away with it and Floridians keep voting just Republicans into the State Government. We need a better balance in the State Government.
    This test is absolutely appalling on so many levels.

    [BW–we originally approved your comment with your paragraph correcting FlaglerNative’s grammatical errors. That was an error on our part: please don;t take our commenters to task for the way they write, spell-checking or grammar included. We philosophically have nothing against bad spellers or bad grammarians, because it generally says absolutely nothing about the quality of their thoughts. Helen, same thing. We’ll handle the editing. Thanks.FL]

  6. Coby says:

    Public schools is becoming a way to allow the masses to reach a bare minimum level of education and nothing more. Parents who want their students to achieve more than the minimum will have to begin enrolling students in private schools. It is yet another example of the erosion of the middle class and the American Dream.

  7. PCer says:

    This year, the test will be scored harder and more students will fail. This will cause an increase in D and F schools. The article also said that they are changing the rules so that charter schools can step in and take over D and F schools. If this is true, it is all a money making scheme for charter school owners/operators. Follow the money and the lobbyists and see who has approved these changes.

  8. Thinkforyourself says:

    Coby, I suggest you spend some time in our schools. Our kids are doing some amazing things. Call and take a tour. You might be pleasantly surprised!

  9. Songbird says:

    Cody, I don’t see too many private schools in the area with an IB program. And our public schools offer many AP classes as well.

    • Helene says:

      Thinkforyourself and Songbird: Absolutely correct. Also, I personally know some doctors children that went to private high schools, had great grades and scores yet couldn’t get into the top schools that the public school graduates did. Colleges that FPC and MHS graduates have gone on to include but are not limited to: Duke, Wake Forest, Colgate, Texas A&M, NYU, Columbia, and MIT (and of course, the flagship schools of FL)

      My Daily Rant: “If your a good teacher and doing your job you have nothing to fear.” (btw, it should be you’re – not your) Maybe you should visit a few schools so that you may have an inkling of what you are talking about. Yesterday, within 10 minutes of starting the FCAT, a girl in my daughters 6th grade class put her head on the desk and went to sleep. When shaken and told to wake up and get to work, she said she was tired because her parents were out very late the night before and she was with a babysitter. Hmmm, what do you think, will this effect her score and reflect on whether my daughter is “a good teacher”? This is just one of a “go-zillion” reasons (the actual number would be the total amount of students in the school system) why using this awful test to grade teachers in abominable.

      PCer: While I agree with your thoughts regarding “follow the money”, the conclusion in this county may be difficult to make. Two of the charter schools here are rated F (however, I’ve heard Imagine is doing good things).


  10. Flagler Native says:

    [Flagler Native, the issue was addressed in the comment to BW.FL]

  11. Liana G says:

    We need to be able to accurately measure students’ progress. We also need accountability. Are there flaws with testing given the diverseness of our student population? Yes, because monopolize public education operates on a one size fits all approach even though more and more children today are being diagnosed with a host of learning disabilities.

    I don’t trust the FCAT. And it’s not because it’s teaching to the test. When you teach a child multiplication, and then proceed to test them on it, that’s teaching to the test. You have to teach to the test. It’s how you measure learning with the necessary data to back it up. The reason I don’t trust the FCAT has to do with its validity and reliability which is skewed by “highly unusual” scores as a result of unethical and damaging teacher AND administrative interference, and the drill baby drill testing strategies. I was heartened to hear that the 10th grade reading portion administered Monday and today was computer based. Not so with 8th grade. Maybe next year. I also heard that the test was “way too easy”. I can’t wait to see the results since those on the “FCAT is a dumb test” bandwagon have greatly spread their influence. Imagine how dumb these kids would feel if they can’t pass such a ‘dumb test’, including my little 3rd grade friend who will, according to her teacher, most likely repeat 3rd grade for a third time next school year.

    This student did attend a local elementary school here in Flagler up until last school year before the parents moved to a new school district. Apparently, Flagler’s fantastic RTI program did not pick up on this poor child’s learning disabilities in the 6 years she spent in their school system (2 years in K, 1in 1st, 1in 2nd, 2 in 3rd). Her new 3rd grade teacher, upon reviewing her new student records and subsequently assessing the student, went straight to the principal and asked for advice. School personnel reviewed the student’s information, administered the relevant testing, and my little friend is now receiving the services she desperately needed all along.

    Given all the harsh criticisms of standardized testing, NCLB, and Race to the Top by the American public or, more precisely, the Union influenced sector of the American public, I was under the impression that standardized testing was new to 21st century America. I was wrong.

    Standardized testing has been around in America for centuries now. As a matter of fact, data collected from standardized testing is the reason why the generations of boomers and genexers are called ‘dumb and dumber’. These two generations have performed the worst on standardized testing in American recorded history. Because of this, education in America today has dropped to the standards it has.

    Educators and Education Reformers of the time were forced to revise and lower curriculum standards to accommodate these two generations making it through high school and beyond. They were essentially pushed through the production line with a lot of pep talk high on self esteem but lax on standards and quality controls – guaranteed college admittance as long as they had the ability to pay, or repay through students loans. And when this was taking place in America, the rest of the world was steadfastly staying the course and has now advanced way beyond us. While some have realized their err and are bravely trying reforms to bring all our children (not a select few) up to par with the rest of the world, others are not happy to change this, given the implications.

    This being said, high and middle school teachers are subject to unfair accountability standards if the state expects these teachers to bring their students up to their current grade level when all along these students have been passed through the system by ineffective teaching practices.

  12. FirstaYearTeacher says:

    If the FCAT was used properly, it could be a proper assessing tool for checking if standards were met during teaching. However, the accountability is done completely wrong. All blame is being brought to one source when in fact numerous sources are at play. Consider the following situation: You are one of many students; you have strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else. You might be able to do one subject really well, but not another (i.e. strong in math, weak in reading). You have great teachers trying to help support you, but you have a severe case of test anxiety (meaning you don’t test well). With that, you also have the idea of being left behind if you f*** up this exam. Your teachers could be let go if you don’t do well enough to show ‘growth’. You get to the test that morning and realize they are putting you on computer instead of using pencil and paper, so you’re already nervous and slowly getting worse. The teacher observing you during the exam is having issues getting the computers started and ready. No one can log in. The tech people gave your teacher the wrong log in. It takes two hours before your class starts the test. The girl sitting next to you is starting to cry because she is the only one not able to start her test. Another student in the back is freaking out because his computer shut off during the exam. Tech people have arrived trying to fix the problem, using colorful language to speak to eachother because someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do with the computers that evening. You get to a passage that might hit a nerve and remind you of something your parents are fighting about. In the end, you feel like you flubbed the test and have it hanging over your head that you might never excel, leading to possible depression, anxiety and other issues that could hurt your school career.

    Hate to tell you this, but these are all things that happened to students testing this week across Florida. All real things…Still think the FCAT is so fair to students?

    Now, coming back to teachers. Only about 1% of teachers really DO NOT care at all about their students. I have hardly seen any at my level, and only a bit more at the higher levels. I don’t know about other teachers, but I was always taught to keep track and take care of my kids. Yes, my job is important, but when it comes down to it, I am more concerned with having my students pass and succeed.

  13. Max says:

    The first day of school students are already signed up to fail. The teachers don’t go over anything on the FCAT. If a student tells the teacher they didn’t go over something that was on the FCAT, the teacher just says “we are doing that next week.” How does that help the students pass the FCAT. Maybe this FCAT test wouldn’t be so hard if the teachers would stop texting each other during class and watching videos on YouTube. And they take away students cell phones.

  14. Mike from Lake County says:

    Excellent article! FCAT is a massive, needless expense based on the outmoded, disproven idea that standardized testing should be the central focus of education. FCAT only benefits those who produce testing supplies and services. Taxpayers and parents, why continue to support this old scam when schools are begging for the funds needed to provide real academic courses and job training for the modern economy? FCAT does NOT tell us if a child is learning. Quite the contrary. It tells us that students have been kidnapped and transformed into profit centers.

  15. amanda says:

    FOLLOW THE MONEY. It isn’t enough the tax drain for bank bailouts that have continued now corporations salivate at more -not making anything- but draining the public til. Opt out of the FCAT. In lower grades they won’t throw you out of school like they do in tenth grade. That is what Scarsdale parents are doing. Your kid -can only flunk- as the 30,000 3rd graders forced into summer school can tell you. In Orange County only 9800 graduate and there are according to the census at least 17,600 expected people of that age. That is a 56% graduation rate. FCAT corporation propaganda well, it lies and says there is improvement.. And this year’s test was a huge “social project experiment” to help sell the test nationally. They needed a baseline to test when students were not even graded on punctuation last year. Plus, test companies “partner” with corporations to grab for the already 800 million scam money trees of Corporation Schools. Just say NO.

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