Sunday, July 13, 2008

Paul Moore on the FCAT

Apologies to the reader but this e-mail recounts a rather lengthy
exchange of messages between myself and a representative of Gov.
Charlie Crist and Florida Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith.
That representative is Dr. Cornelia S. Orr, Assistant Deputy
Commissioner Accountability, Research and Measurement, Office of
Assessment, Florida Department of Education. Quite an imposing title
indeed. If there is corresponding wisdom and compassion you can be the

It all starts with this message on May 21, 2008.

The day of the 2008 release of the third-grader'

s Florida
Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores is a good time to step
back and take stock of what has simply come to be known as the test in
the Sunshine State.

Looking back, the FCAT appeared in the public schools for the first
time in the final year of Governor Lawton Chiles' term in office. But
Jeb Bush is married to the FCAT in the minds of most Floridians. And
he seems to embrace that idea. Bush often cites the test as the
cornerstone of his legacy as the self-proclaimed "education governor"
and he did raise the FCAT stakes to point that it now hangs over the
state's public school landscape like a dense fog.

The now former Governor Jeb Bush is the scion of a dynastic American
family of incomparable political power and great wealth. The Bush
family boasts two President's of the United States! The family enjoys
a huge fortune based on its dealings across the financial spectrum
from the Rockefellers to the Saudi royal family. There can be no
argument, an extremely powerful man made the FCAT his baby and guided
the State of Florida to this system of public school accountability.

For those unfamiliar with the FCAT, it makes children accountable for
tested reading skills when they reach the age of eight or 9-years-old.
If a child fails to meet the test standards-that child is severely
punished. The child is publicly humiliated! The child is forced to
repeat the third grade while classmates move ahead to the forth grade.
The architects of the FCAT believe that holding these children up to
shame and ridicule will become an incentive to master the tested
reading skills and there is little doubt the approach does increase
the pressure on the little ones. There are widespread reports of
children becoming physically sick on test days-throwing up on the
test, urinating on themselves.

Several years now of administering the test indicate that children
living in poverty feel the lion's share of the FCAT 's punitive force.
Because a disproportionate number of poor children are
African-American and Hispanic and recent immigrants, something the
educational bureaucracy calls "the achievement gap" is now all the
rage. However, those bureaucrats are adamant that poverty will not be
used as an excuse. The children must be punished, they must be held
accountable! It is worth noting here that Florida's white children
living in poverty, in rural Jefferson County for instance, do not fare
well with the FCAT either.

For a while, a couple of years ago, South Florida had a precious
little FCAT success story named Sherdavia Jenkins. She came from the
heart of Miami-Dade's Liberty City and gave the test a whoppin' worthy
of Muhammad Ali in his prime. Ali was someone, by the way, who would
have had great difficulty with the FCAT as a child but he did
ultimately lecture at Harvard University several times as a grown man
and recorded some success in life. Anyway, Sherdavia earned the best
FCAT score at Lillie C. Evans Elementary. The justifiable pride
Sherdavia must have felt lasted just a few weeks before the violence
endemic in her depressed neighborhood claimed her life. She was shot
and killed outside her home.

The whole tragedy raises certain questions. Who was ready to step up
and be accountable for the all too brief life and violent death of the
FCAT whiz? Should Sherdavia have packed up and gotten out of Liberty
City? Maybe, but it's hard out there for a nine-year-old on your own.
FCAT supporters often mention the importance of parental
accountability. And we may have to settle for blaming Sherdavia's
mother and father for allowing her onto the front porch to play with
her dolls. Because not one of Florida's most powerful and influential
public figures even acknowledged that Sherdavia Jenkins' death was a
problem that needed their attention.

Although the level of public school funding and graduation rates in
Florida rest at or near the bottom of the national barrel, another
layer of FCAT accountability lands on youngsters if they survive into
and through high school. This year 26,997 high school seniors who
dutifully completed their coursework, did their community service, and
fought off all the negative influences toward dropping out will be
punished for the sake of FCAT skills. At their upcoming graduation
ceremonies, some of these students will pretend to their classmates to
be receiving a diploma. But they will walk across that stage to be
lashed by their FCAT masters and handed a worthless piece of paper.

At the conclusion of the movie Spiderman, Peter Parker comes to terms
with his superhero status and he remembers his uncle saying, "With
great power, comes great responsibility." The creators and the
administrators of the FCAT live by another rule. For them it seems to
come down to, "With great power, comes great impunity." Under the FCAT
regimen, all the accountability is heaped on the shoulders of children
living in deprivation and adults living in comfort accept none.

Jeb Bush had the means to keep his own children in private schools and
he always did. The private schools are a haven from incessant testing
because parents like Jeb and Columba Bush want their children truly
educated and prepared for the future. Yet Gov. Bush, as a matter of
public policy, always held that the FCAT was good for the public
schools. And to prove it Bush used his power to retain tens of
thousands of children in the third grade, he withheld high school
diplomas from thousands more, he used the test to stigmatize the
schools that serve children living in poverty as failing schools.

But while he was governor, Jeb Bush never ever held himself
accountable for anything. In 2002, the state's short-term investment
and pension funds lost $334 million as Enron collapsed, three times
the loss of any other fund in the nation. Jeb Bush invested Florida in
Edison charter schools when the stock was valued at $37 and got out
when it was worth 14 cents. Another $500 million of the public's money
was lost to enable his other corporate adventures.

Former Gov. Bush still doesn't believe in accountability except for
public school children. It has been reported that after leaving office
Bush got a new job with Lehman Brothers. The Wall Street investment
banking firm paid him over $400,000 to take a seat on their board of
directors. Shortly thereafter, Florida's Local Government Investment
Pool and the Florida Retirement System purchased $842 million in bad
investments from Lehman Brothers.

At ceremonies as Rep. Marco Rubio was ascending to Speaker of the
Florida House of Representatives, Jeb Bush gave Rubio a sword. The
gift was a sign that Rubio was pledged to defend the Bush legacy,
including the FCAT. And Speaker Rubio has been faithful to his
mentor's charge, seeing to it that the burdens of accountability
remain squarely and exclusively on children and off powerful men like
him. A recent news report has Speaker Rubio's Miami-Dade home
inexplicably increasing in value a month after he bought it. Another
story describes a home equity loan to Rubio from a bank run by
politically connected allies. Then Rubio was accused of slipping
language into legislation that allowed Max Alvarez, who describes
Rubio as "like a son", to keep a multi-million dollar turnpike fuel

Even with Marco Rubio presiding in the House, the Florida Legislature
did make changes to the FCAT. Sadly these changes turned out to be
among the most cravenly self-serving "FCAT reforms" imaginable. This
powerful governing body left untouched all the FCAT punishments for
children after gutting public school funding by $2.3 billion. They
went on to reduce the weight given to FCAT test scores when grading
the schools, likely raising grades that have reflected badly on
Legislators and the Florida Department of Education. It has all
become almost impossible to fathom.

Paul A. Moore

That essay was mailed to Gov. Crist and induced this reply from Dr.
Orr on May 30, 2008.

Dear Mr. Moore:

Thank you for writing to Governor Charlie Crist to again express your
concerns about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test® (FCAT). The
Governor received your message, and I have been asked to respond on
behalf of Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, Ed.D.

We regret that our responses to your previous messages expressing
disapproval of the FCAT have not provided resolution to your concerns.
Great effort was made to address your concerns in the e-mail messages
sent to you on July 28, 2006, March 16, 2007, and October 23, 2007.
In spite of the information provided to you, you presently contend
that the Grade 3 FCAT is a tool by which children are "severely
punished," "publicly humiliated," "forced to repeat the third grade,"
and subjected to "shame and ridicule." Because we have previously
provided you with the rationale behind the Grade Three Student
Progression Plan, there is little else that can be said to change your
perceptions of this assessment.

However, I would like to reiterate the introductory paragraph of the
Grade 3 document which states: "If a child does not read adequately
at the third grade level, research has shown that this child has
little chance of succeeding academically in subsequent grades. That
is why every effort is made to address reading deficiencies in a
timely manner. Reading deficiencies, regardless of the cause, must be
addressed before a student can be expected to move on to the more
difficult work of the higher grades."

We appreciate your accounting of the political leadership, events, and
practices of the state and your interest in their consequences,
resolutions, and repercussions. While your view of the FCAT may
remain constant, we hope that the recently released document attached
to this message will increase your awareness of and clarify the
changes made to the state's assessment program by the 2008 Florida
Legislature. Thank you for the feedback you have provided.


Cornelia S. Orr, Ph.D.

On June 10, 2008 I will say that Dr. Orr's message saddened me because
it makes clear how terribly insulated academics and bureaucrats are
from their victims. The ideologues behind the FCAT are separated
socially and economically by a gaping chasm from the children they are
destroying. They ease their consciences in this matter by referring to
selective and supportive "research" as Dr. Orr has done. But there can
be no excuse for holding a nine-year-old accountable and making
punitive measures toward them official state policy. No research ever
done supports that!

The Time magazine article of Sunday June 8, 2008 titled "No Child Left
Behind: Doomed to Fail" is offered to support the utter absurdity and
counter-productivity of the approach to educating children by rules
set up in the FCAT system and No Child Left Behind regimen. Please
Gov. Crist, Commissioner Smith, and Dr. Orr, for the good of Florida's
children and for your own salvations read it closely, take it to
heart, and help make it new educational policy in this state.

No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?
By Claudia Wallis

There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind
(NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush
Administration's signature domestic achievement. For one thing, in the
view of many educators, the law's 2014 goal - which calls for all
public school students in grades 4 through 8 to be achieving on grade
level in reading and math - is something no educational system
anywhere on earth has ever accomplished. Even more unrealistic: every
kid (except for 3% with serious handicaps or other issues) is supposed
to be achieving on grade level every year, climbing in lockstep up an
ever more challenging ladder. This flies in the face of all sorts of
research showing that children start off in different places
academically and grow at different rates.

Add to the mix the fact that much of the promised funding failed to
materialize and many early critics insisted that No Child Left Behind
was nothing more than a cynical plan to destroy American faith in
public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice.

Now a former official in Bush's Education department is giving at
least some support to that notion. Susan Neuman, a professor of
education at the University Michigan who served as Assistant Secretary
for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush's first
term, was and still is a fervent believer in the goals of NCLB. And
she says the President and then Secretary of Education Rod Paige were
too. But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who
saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda - a way to expose the
failure of public education and "blow it up a bit," she says. "There
were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and

Tensions between NCLB believers and the blow-up-the-schools group were
one reason the Bush Department of Education felt like "a pressure
cooker," says Neuman, who left the Administration in early 2003.
Another reason was political pressure to take the hardest possible
line on school accountability in order to avoid looking lax - like the
Clinton Administration. Thus, when Neuman and others argued that many
schools would fail to reach the NCLB goals and needed more flexibility
while making improvements, they were ignored. "We had this no-waiver
policy," says Neuman. "The feeling was that the prior administration
had given waivers willy-nilly."

It was only in Bush's second term that the hard line began to succumb
to reality. Margaret Spellings, who replaced Paige as Secretary of
Education in 2005, gradually opened the door to a more flexible and
realistic approach to school accountability. Instead of demanding
lockstep, grade-level achievement, schools in some states could meet
the NCLB goals by demonstrating adequate student growth. (In this
"growth model" approach, a student who was three years behind in
reading and ended the year only one year behind would not be viewed as
a failure.) "Going to the growth models is the right way to go," says
Neuman. "I wish it had come earlier. It didn't because we were trying
to be tough."

Neuman also regrets the Administration's use of humiliation and shame
as a lever for school reform. Failure to meet NCLB's inflexible goals
meant schools would be publicly labeled as failures. Neuman now sees
this as a mistake: "Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to
shame them was not the right approach."

The combination of inflexibility and public humiliation for those not
meeting federal goals ignited so much frustration among educators that
NCLB now appears to be an irreparably damaged brand. "The problems
lingered long enough and there's so much anger that it may not be
fixable," says Neuman. While the American Federation of Teachers was
once on board with the NCLB goals, she notes, the union has turned
against it. "Teachers hate NCLB because they feel like they've been
picked on."

Is there a way out of the mess? Neuman still supports school
accountability and the much-maligned annual tests mandated by the law.
But she now believes that the nation has to look beyond the
schoolroom, if it wishes to leave no child behind.

Along with 59 other top educators, policymakers and health
officials--including three former surgeon generals, she's put her name
to a nonpartisan document to be released on Tuesday by the Economic
Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Titled "A Broader, Bolder
Approach to Education," <> it lays out an
expansive vision for leveling the playing field for low-income kids,
one that looks toward new policies on child health and support for
parents and communities. The document states that much of the
achievement gap between rich and poor "is rooted in what occurs
outside of formal schooling," and therefore calls on policymakers to
"rethink their assumptions" about what it will take to close that gap.
Neuman says that money she's seen wasted on current programs,
including much of the massive Title 1 spending should be reallocated
according to this broader approach. "Pinning all our hopes on schools
will never change the odds for kids.

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