No, that's not as rude as it might sound. But if you don't live in Florida, you probably have no idea that this title is referring to:
Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test
And it began today.
FCAT is 10 years old now, originally implemented to gauge, then improve the state's academic performance based on grading not only students but schools and teachers - it seems to have had very little effect in accomplishing that. We are the fourth most populous state in the country and still we are cited as being in the lower range of educational performance and quality. Has FCAT had any effect at ALL?
Yes. School curriculums have changed to improve performance on the test. It has become the core of our educational system, replacing the curriculums of old that included more music, art, and physical education.
Yes. It has alternately over-crowded and under-utilized schools as it uses a financial reward/punishment for good/bad school grades. It has done the same to teachers who may or may not have students willing or even capable of doing well on this test. In the meantime, parents desperately juggle housing or "school vouchers" in order to have their children attend A+ schools - where the money and the teachers go, leaving the children who need the most help behind in schools that don't receive the money they need to function well because of their bad grades.
They're building a new southside middle school in amongst the rich folks, while a perfectly good school building languishes less than five miles away because it sits in the wrong part of town and has earned D's in recent years. That school has a new principle who is taking the bull by the horns and is determined to turn that school around - by improving test scores. I wish her luck, but is teaching the test really the best way to do that? Better that she return to the teaching styles and subjects of old... the well-rounded student approach to improve the scores than try so dilligently to make the test the thing.
Teachers aren't fond of the test. One teacher near and dear to my heart refers to it as F***ing CAT. I'm sure there are many others. It judges them unfairly based on student performance - which doesn't take the STUDENT into account. Some of these kids are disabled mentally in one way or another. Some have physical impairments that make test-taking difficult at best. And some teachers are rated according to those scores. None of it seems fair.
And then there are the kids. They have FCAT fever drummed into their brains from the first day of school beginning in third grade (the first year of taking the FCAT). Part of the homework every week is "FCAT Practice." In the weeks leading up to the test, workbooks are sent home and pages and pages of practice test pages are handed out. Everyone's got their knickers in a twist and the pressure to do well is intense. I imagine school kids everywhere starting out their test days throwing up before heading out, much like I used to do before doing freelance graphics on televised sporting events. It's one of the reasons I quit doing that - the stress of it literally made me sick both before and after each event.
I know how it feels.
So at my house, we don't talk about the FCAT. In fact, we don't really talk about tests at all. We practice spelling and math and work on understanding what we read. I explained to my son early on that tests aren't anything to worry about. It's just a measure of how much you've learned. When you sit down to take a test, answer what you can, go back and work out the ones you need to put more effort into - and forget about the rest. If you don't get a good grade, then that just means you need to spend more time learning that subject. Enough bad grades mean that you will just have to stay in that grade and learn it again until you know the material.
But it's hard to maintain that kind of stress-free attitude when everyone around you is freaking out over bits of paper, empty circles and number two pencils. Concerned, my son asked me why everyone was so upset.
I told him I didn't know why, but if he paid attention to what he was doing, listened to the directions and did the best he could, he would be fine.
I asked him today when I picked him up from school how things went. He grinned widely and said it was pathetic - which in kid-speak means that it didn't challenge him all that much. I high-fived him and we went home talking about something else.
Granted. My son is very smart. He reads well, comprehends well, and retains things even when it seems like he's not paying attention at all. But that's because we have always stressed the JOY of learning - not the work of it. And we've made every effort to make sure that tests aren't cause for stress - they're just part of the process.
I wonder. Should Florida adopt a new way of thinking when it comes to teaching our children? I believe so - because the current ideas? They're not working.