MEET THE NEW TEST (SAME AS THE OLD TEST)
The FCAT era is over, but nothing is really changing
Every year about this time, we hear complaints — from parents, from educators, from policy wonks — about the FCAT, that singular high-stakes test that's been the centerpiece of Florida's education policy for 15 years. But that's about to change.
Next year, Florida moves to Common Core standards, adopting a Sunshine State version of the national movement toward ensuring that content and curriculum standards line up, and that students across the state and the country are more prepared for the rigors of college, with more measurable standards based on problem-solving and analysis. In 2009, when the Obama Administration announced its Race to the Top program, the president linked achievement on this test to eligibility for grant money. As with the lottery, many will enter, few will win. States that want a shot at extra federal dough have to adopt the standards and ensure their students achieve them — a situation especially challenging for a state with as many unique challenges as Florida.
Common Core has some powerful national advocates, among them former governor and maybe presidential contender Jeb Bush, opinion leaders like The New York Times' David Brooks and businesses like Pearson, which dominates the textbook market.
Locally, Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti likewise has spoken to some advantages of Florida's version of Common Core: "By demonstrating that our kids are doing better, it leads to more economic opportunities," Vitti told WOKV-FM. "I think more kids would be going to college, and Florida could market that throughout the country."
Sounds good. But local activists have some real concerns about almost every major aspect of Common Core.
For example, Colleen Doherty Wood, a public school parent, activist and founder of the education reform website 50thnomore.com, marvels at how this test is being pushed on Florida parents.
"The fact that the state of Florida is planning for the 2014-'15 school year to implement a new assessment, which no one in Florida has seen, with questions that have yet to be field-tested, to determine third-grade retention, graduation, class placement, school grades and half of every teacher's evaluation and pay, is so ridiculous it would almost be funny if it weren't so tragic," Wood says. "I am tired of the people determining my children's education, and that of the 2.7 million other public school students, trying to sell me either an ideology or a product. Florida parents are no longer buying it. This new so-called accountability system is setting up our children, schools and communities for failure, and we won't stand for it."
Wood takes particular issue with the fact that the state is paying Utah $5.4 million to field-test the new exam, an arrangement in which Florida is renting questions from Utah for the first year of Common Core testing.
The common thread between Florida and Utah? Utah approved the Common Core, but went its own way and developed its own standards (as did Florida) based on the Common Core, under the auspices of the American Institutes of Research (AIR). AIR beat out a lot of heavy-hitters for the Florida contract, including Pearson (which has handled the beleaguered FCAT). This does not mollify standardized test critics: "The whole bait-and-switch thing, you can slap a different name on it, just like the standards, and it doesn't make it any different. It's still the same thing," Meredith Mears, the co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core, told Tallahassee's Public Broadcasting Station WFSU-FM in February.
Perhaps Mears and Wood — and other critics — have good points. Perhaps states rushed to adopt these standards in a chase for Race to the Top money from Washington, as public education advocate and testing skeptic Diane Ravitch argues. More likely though, if Common Core, or the FCAT before it, had not existed, the devil — or the Department of Education — would have had to invent it.
The implementation of Common Core will likely have glitches along the lines of the testing irregularities FCAT-takers experienced this month, or some other unforeseen anomalies.
However, in the metrically driven 21st Century, there's no escaping a model that privileges quantifiable data over anecdotal evidence. Those data are what standardized testing provides, and bureaucrats crave. And, like it or not, that genie won't be going back in the bottle anytime soon.