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[Susan notes: Okay, this is an op-ed, not a letter. But the up-close and personal technique is effective.]

Published in Orlando Sentinel
05/25/2002
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/orl-edpmyword25a052502may25.story?coll=orl%2Dopinion%2Dheadlines

The Heartbreak of Being Held Back

The day was to start with kids dressed in their finest, with family members in the audience, laughter and singing as we honored students for their accomplishments. Typically, this is one of the most memorable days of elementary school for sixth-graders.

Regrettably, the day was very different for one of my students. With the last-minute release of FCAT scores, we were left to scramble the night before, writing retention letters, trying to notify parents of students scoring at the lowest level that their children were being retained.

In many cases the retention was expected; for those who received the news unexpectedly, it was heart-wrenching. I wish I had a video to send to Gov. Jeb "For Education" Bush as I cradled this 13-year-old in my arms. Bush would see the boy and me crying during our awards ceremony.

You see, the last-minute news of having to be retained in sixth grade was simply too much for the boy to bear. He wants to move on and be with his friends.

The hardest part for me, other than his extreme sorrow, was that he kept saying, "I tried my hardest, I did my best, don't you know that, Mrs. Cantwell?"

He would sob a little more, wipe his tears and then add, "I read so much, you read with me, you know I can read!"

After a few more sobs came the real gut wrencher: "Why did you do this to me? I worked so hard and this is what I get!?"

I was unable to reply because I did not do this to him. I issue the report card, and so students think teachers hold the key.

Bush probably wonders how this could come as a surprise. Well, as he should know, the FCAT is designed to test curriculum that is taught during the course of the school year, yet it is administered nine to 12 weeks before the school year is out. As a teacher, my students were learning and working on projects until a few days ago because I know that every day in education counts. Quite simply, I wasn't finished teaching the year's worth of curriculum by March when the test was administered. Is this my fault?

Definitely not, or school would be out the day the FCAT is over.

Have I seen growth in my students since the FCATs?

You bet! That is where this student suffered the consequences. At the time of the FCAT, I had administered a county reading test and the boy was not where he needed to be, but we kept working. Two weeks ago I administered the final county assessment, and he was on grade level with a few points to spare. We celebrated his accomplishment, and I told him how his hard work had paid off. By the way, I have other data that reflect the same results. You can see how both of us were caught off-guard by his FCAT scores, and ultimately his need to be retained according to law.

I promised this young man that I would do everything in my power to let it be known how hard he has worked. In tears, I apologized to his father. As they walked away, I was left to ponder why so much can hinge on just one test, given before full progress has been given the opportunity to be made.

My question for Jeb Bush: How and why is this?

Donna Cantwell teaches at Longleaf Elementary School in Melbourne.

Donna Cantwell


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