Tuesday, March 11, 2008

FCAT-ing Around

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.


And he is.

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.


Anonymous said...

You are so right! The new way of thinking/teaching is not working. It punishes the slow student and doesn't really challenge the ZBoys. My own girls would have aced the FCAT while my son would have (DID) bomb it for lack of caring.
Glad Z thought it was easy. Lots of my kids thought so, too. However, they couldn't read a word on the test. Different kind of EASY!

sheenack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Me said...

I love the way you handle it in your household - the stress free attitude and your objective is to ensure Zboy learns and not just aces papers and tests.
That's a cool way to raise a child :)

karisma said...

We have something similar here, its taken in year 3 and 5. I ummed and ahhed this year as I actually "have" a choice as a homeschooler now! We discussed it and decided NO. My boys know they are doing fine and Im happy! Zboy looks sweet in this picture, I never noticed before, but he reminds me of one of my best friends sons when he was little! Just amazing! Im glad he is doing great! He is a sweet heart!

karatemom said...

Great pic...!
good attitude..

best of luck...

( personally I hate the whole school system and cannot wait until both my boys are out..they create so much stress and self esteem problems for kids these days..wish it were like when I was a kid.).

nikki said...

Michigan has the MEAP. Same concept, same pressure.

(Z-boy's smile in the picture is priceless!)

Anonymous said...

FCAT-an atrocity perpetrated by dimwitted right-wing politicians to punish school children.
Test certainly-Trash? Shame on all of us who voted for anyone who voted for this abominable system.

Liane Michel said...

Last year, a week before FCAT, Jason was struggling with math concepts he didn't understand and asked for my help. They were more advanced than his current homework, so I asked why his teacher had begun covering material that was way beyond their current studies.

Come to find out the material was scheduled to be taught later in the year, but because it was included on FCAT, the students had to have a ONE WEEK CRASH COURSE so that they could answer the questions on FCAT. Talk about teaching the test!

FCAT sucks big time. It's nothing but a waste of money, and time, and nothing decent comes out of it. I agree 200% with what you said.

Jeff said...

Sometimes, I think the best way to measure a student is just do an impromptu interview. Ask him/her about school and home. Ask questions that would evaluate vocabulary, spelling and even a little math. Most of all, one needs to observe how the kid handles himself with courtesy, respect, and the use of proper language. If you really want to know what is going on with kids, talk to them.

min said...

Why can't they just teach!?

Sandy said...

I realize I am in the minority here but when I went to school, we were tested constantly. End of chapter tests, weekly tests, end of semester tests, and proficiency tests before we were passed to the next grade. All of the teaching was "teaching to the test".

I also favor grades, though, and not the pass/fail system so in favor now.

I will eventually go the way of the dinosaur but in the meantime, grades are a way of seeing how much a child knows of the curriculum being taught. It is also a measure by which he/she can take pride and actually have some self-esteem that was earned.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful attitudes in your house and what a great way for Z. I believe every state has some form of this test and it is incredibly stupid. The multi-disabled units can cause a school to be in the toilet on numbers because these kids don't read or do math. Most don't even know they are in this world but they have to be tested too. And they have to be tested on some form of algebra or flower pollination ( depends on age).
Can you say STUPID!!!
I have has a teacher tell me that she no longer can teach because she has to keep all the notebooks for the State. It is all about the tests not the child. A child is just a number.