Florida Politics Make Little Kids Vomit
Thank you, Mike Winerip.
SORRY I'm late," said Charlie Perez. "I had to get my son from school. He got sick." Mr. Perez paused. "Not really sick. The school called this morning. They said he was vomiting."
When Mr. Perez arrived at Arbor Ridge Elementary, he saw that his son, Giancarlo, a third grader, had no fever or any other signs of illness, and the father's heart sank. Mr. Perez understood that the little boy was vomiting from nerves and shame. "He thinks he's a failure," the father said.
Since the start of the school year, Mr. Perez had been hoping somehow that his son (who gets A+ in spelling, but C- in reading) would pass the state's third-grade reading test and be promoted to fourth grade. The father had been impressed with how hard the school had worked, providing extra reading and language help. The family hired a tutor, and Mr. Perez, a real estate broker, spent long hours reading with the boy.
"I told Giancarlo, `Give it your best shot. Whether you pass or not, guess what? Your dad and mom still love you very much and will be with you all the way.' "
Then, last week, 9-year-olds from all over Florida got back the state test results determining who would be held back and who promoted. "I said, `Son, there's three scores on this paper,' " Mr. Perez recalled. " `One's who pass, one's who don't pass and a third' — and this next part I made up — `One's who don't try.' I said: `Son, I have good news. The paper says you did try. You're not under the `Didn't Try' category.' He said, `Dad, did I pass?' "
"All this last year," Mr. Perez continued, "with me, with the tutor, I see him putting in 250 percent and here's Dad promising all this hard work is going to pay off. So now, how do I explain that paper?"
Mornings have been misery since the arrival of that paper. "My son keeps saying, `I don't want to go to school, Daddy.' "
Giancarlo is not alone. For the first time, Florida third graders must pass a reading test or be held back, and earlier this month Gov. Jeb Bush announced that 23 percent — 43,000 — had flunked.
Fortunately, Governor Bush keeps reminding them that the new policy is for their own good, even if a record number are being retained. "That breaks my heart," he said. "But if we don't deal with it now, going forward there are going to be a whole lot of shattered dreams."
Fortunately, Republicans who control the Legislature and made passing the test mandatory for promotion, have been happy to ignore the educational research. So what if hundreds of studies in the last two decades have concluded that holding children back has no long-term academic benefit, that within two years retained students once again lag behind classmates and that retained students are more likely to drop out of high school.
So what if Florida's own Department of Education issued a report in the early 1990's warning against retention: "Research on the subject is clear. Grade level retention does not work. Further, it would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the research findings are so unequivocally negative."
So what if politicians insist on ignoring history. At a public hearing last year, State Senator Anna P. Cowin called the research "gobbledygook," and State Senator Donald C. Sullivan called those who questioned the new policy "the bad guys." In this manner, Florida has set a national precedent, giving the adults who know these third graders best — their teachers and principals — absolutely no say in who will be kept back.
The situation at Lake Silver Elementary here seems pretty typical. The school is half white, half black. Of Lake Silver's 101 third graders, 23 failed. Stephen Leggett, the principal, said that long before the test results, all 23 had been identified as lagging in reading. All were getting extra help, with some seeing three specialists a week, he said. "That test told us nothing we didn't know," Mr. Leggett said.
Mr. Leggett, who has been principal for 21 years, and his five third-grade teachers believe none of the 23 should be held back. For reading, Lake Silver students are grouped by ability, with the slowest readers placed in the smallest group that gets the most individualized attention. Third graders are pushed to read the most challenging books they can; some read sixth-grade books, while others read second-grade books.
Mr. Leggett said next year, whether those 23 sit in a fourth-grade classroom or third-grade classroom, they would do the same reading work — the highest level they could. And they would get the same reading help in either case.
The only difference? In a third-grade class "they'll have the bad feelings of being held back," he said.
And who are we stigmatizing? Children who already get more than their share of "bad feelings": Poor children (20 of 23 who failed at Lake Silver are eligible for free lunches). Transient children (6 of 23 have been at Lake Silver less than a year). Black children (18 of 23).
What would really help with reading, Mr. Leggett said, is more public preschool for the poor, but because of state budget cuts, two-thirds of those preschool classes were eliminated here this year.
Thanks to the new state policy, it looks like Marc and Mary French will have one of their twin girls at Deerwood Elementary in third grade next year, the other in fifth. When their daughter Cheyanne was a first grader, she was diagnosed with an attention disorder, prescribed medicine and kept back. Since then, her progress has been steady. This year she made honor roll twice.
"She's worked so hard," Mr. French said. "An awesome effort. She's actually a better student now than her twin."
Cheyanne did well on practice state tests. "I don't know if she froze up when it counted," Mr. French said, "or didn't take her medicine that day. We can't explain it."
Whom to ask? The test? And what does the test know about the emotional burdens on an 11-year-old third grader with a fifth-grade twin?
Summer vacation starts here at the end of this week. Mr. Perez has decided to keep Giancarlo home on Friday. "I don't want him hearing, `Ha ha, you're not going to fourth grade,' " Mr. Perez said. "These people who run the state, they have no idea."
A Pupil Held Back, a Heavier Burden