For achievement, we must look beyond test results
By Bill Archer
Volusia County schools have given people living in our communities a reason to be proud by the effective teaching and learning that has occurred within our schools. And they have done this despite the manipulated rigors of a state-imposed testing program called the FCAT and a federally imposed No Child Left Behind program called the NCLB.
Both programs focus on punishing schools that don't meet their arbitrary standards for achievement in specific subject areas and that don't demonstrate an arbitrarily statistical narrowing of an achievement gap that exists between mostly minority groups and whites who are attending our public schools.
In her essay published Sunday, Volusia County schools Superintendent Margaret Smith described a number of wonderful programs in operation in our schools that meet this county's goals for education, namely that "each student will learn and that the achievement gap between the highest achieving students and the lowest achieving students will be closed." She made no reference to the narrowly accepted and imposed goal by the state and federal government that targets the specific gap between "minorities and whites." The most important part of her goal is "each student will learn"; it is with this understanding that her hired employees do their good work.
Also in another article in Sunday's News-Journal, Chris Colwell, deputy superintendent for instructional services, described the high achievement of our students compared to students around the nation. Our students for the most part achieve on level, or higher than others in this state. The results of the national norm referenced tests place our students' performance in the top third of the nation.
Another article found in the paper Sunday was written by a local pubic school teacher, Helen Miles. She emphasized the need for our students to learn not only the subject area information but also have the opportunity to experience the fundamental human values upon which hopeful and positive futures are built. By combining curricular programs that build positive relationships between people with economic initiatives in the community our students' prospects improve greatly.
Even the main editorial of The News-Journal offered its position on the issue of the "achievement gap" in last Sunday's paper. Its suggestion was that despite all that's being done, the "achievement gap cannot be closed by schools alone -- students need help beyond school yards." It also stated that "no ultimate plan exists to close the learning achievement gap because there is no simple explanation for why some children are more likely to score lower on school achievement tests -- and not just the Florida Comprehensive Assessment." To understand the importance of this idea one must go back a couple weeks for another essay in The News-Journal by Jo Ann Nahirny, titled "What does the FCAT measure?"
In light of the ideas given above by the educational professionals working in our schools and the editorial staff's own conclusions, her article now is put in perspective. Her very thoughtful piece also brought up another pivotal issue at its end. Who really knows better how the students are doing, the teachers or the results of the FCAT? Nahirny offered that some students whose achievement levels were routinely low had achieved the highest scores attainable on the most recent FCAT tests. This shocked the teachers who thought they had a pretty good idea about their students' achievement levels. It also shocked parents who wondered about the credibility of the teachers teaching and evaluating their students.
For a testing program to insinuate it is a better evaluator of student performance than a student's teacher would sabotage all teachers in the eyes of the public. But Nahirny's two questions only set the stage for a more important one to be asked!
Though the articles in Sunday's paper about this contentious issue did a great job describing the many perspectives from which the "achievement gap" can be approached, it was Nahirny's article that unintentionally suggested a crack in the impenetrable wall and the hallmark of Gov. Jeb Bush's high stakes FCAT testing program. It has been the cornerstone of this governor's plans for education reform for the past eight years. It has been his instrument of punishment and political self-aggrandizement and is itself the obstacle in the path of closing the achievement gap.
With reference to Nahirny's article a better question would be "What does the governor who conceived the design, the administration, the evaluation and the validation of the FCAT want the test results to show in his last term in office? Jeb Bush has total control of the program. There are no outside control measures. Is it any wonder that when another evaluation measure was introduced into "Jeb Country," his own brother's NCLB, a measure not totally controlled and evaluated by the governor, only 13 percent of the schools in the state passed? I don't know about you, but I know our Volusia County schools function better without either of the Bushes' education reform plans.
Archer, a public school counselor, lives in Daytona Beach.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES