Failure to Thrive

The worst sentences I’ve come across this year haven’t been in the pages of the much-reviled mommy porn (which I’ve admittedly not read) or the fumbling, transcribed speeches of Gov. Rick Scott (which I, grudgingly, have). Rather, they’ve been in the proscribed FCAT pretests of my capable, obedient third grader.

The pretests, which we were given to review after a midterm convo with our son’s teacher, dealt with birds and their habitats.

Not everyone cares about birds, of course, but as grandson and daughter of an avid (read: obsessive) birder, my kid and I might be expected to land in the 7 percent of readers even mildly interested in the subject.

Or not. The reading portion of the FCAT is to good literature as a car owner’s manual is to driving a Porsche Cayman. Inferior doesn’t begin to describe it.

The test isn’t written by anyone with writing skill, or even one who evinces pity for the reader. To the contrary, it appears written by someone who finds dictionary entries entirely too chatty, and who thinks effective learning entails drudgery over drama. The truth is that the reading comprehension portion of the FCAT isn’t designed by authors trying to engage readers, or even educators trying to engage students, but by test-makers trying to ease the work of the test-scorers. So if you missed the fact that the red bird landed in the tree moments before the black bird chirped — if you even read that far before your eyes glazed — then you can kiss your test score (and, possibly, your hopes to advance to the fourth grade) goodbye.

The foibles of the test aren’t news to the teachers forced to administer the FCAT and shape their lessons to its “logic.” But this year’s test cycle was revealing to a lot of parents — and not just those of us with FCAT first-timers. In fact, the biggest shock came to parents of fourth, eighth and 10th graders, whose kids overwhelmingly failed the test’s writing portion. Or at least they initially failed. Turns out, this high-stakes, all-consuming, stress-inducing annual exam that state education officials consider the measure of a school and its teachers is entirely fungible. In an emergency meeting scheduled just hours after disastrous FCAT Writes scores were released, the state Department of Education voted to scrap the 2012 scoring system and replace it with an earlier, easier one.

Why would the DOE throw out its own scoring matrix? It’s the state, after all, that requires the test to be administered, and considers the scores the key to education “accountability.” Changing outcomes is like Major League Baseball eliminating stats for poorly performing players. But the DOE’s decision wasn’t about logic — it was about averting a full-fledged revolt by parents. Before panicked state officials changed the scores, only 27 percent of fourth graders passed the writing portion of the exam, down from more than 80 percent last year. The results were roughly the same for eighth and 10th graders.

State education officials knew that Florida parents weren’t about to put up with that degree of mass failure. They may ignore the erosion of state funding for schools, as they largely have, and even the “failure” label when it applies to someone else’s kid. But the broad-brush designation got their attention —and had some seeing FCAT in a whole new way. Maybe it isn’t good to have so much riding on a single, high-stakes exam. Maybe giving kids a 45-minute test that’s graded in 45 seconds isn’t the surest measurement of their capabilities. Maybe asking them to “suppose you or someone else had a chance to ride a camel” — this year’s prompt — isn’t the best way to elicit good, expository writing.

The DOE decision to scrap the scores averted an uprising, but the FCAT fallout continues. Reading scores for the state’s third graders also dropped precipitously, and passage is required for third graders to advance. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, the news hit San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin like a body blow. Only 48 percent of third graders scored at grade level, and the day the results were announced, Principal Monika Wolcott emailed her staff asking them to hug the third-grade teachers. “They’re sad today,” she said. “It really attacks your self-worth.”

If teachers felt bad, one can imagine how the students felt. Around the state, 36,577 third graders scored too low to advance to the fourth grade. Failed? In every way.

Anne Schindler

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Twitter @schindy