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FCAT's reliability problems should lead to major changes

Look at the taxpayer dollars being spent on high stakes testing. Look at who benefits.

by William L. Bainbridge

On May 25, an understandably frustrated Joseph Wise, superintendent of Duval County schools, wrote me a note saying: "We must solve these FCAT snafus, fiascos, or whatever the issues may be germinating from. This recurring dysfunction is bad for kids, and bad for schools. In districts like ours, where we are working tirelessly to keep all focused on the academic growth we must make, it is a huge distraction to good decision making."

Wise was justifiably focused on the entire year it took the Florida Department of Education to admit there was something extremely wrong with the statewide Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading scores.

Recently, the other shoe fell when schools throughout Florida were told that fewer third-grade students were performing at grade level in reading compared to last year. How could this be? The statewide drop of 6 percentage points saw scores in 60 of Florida's 67 counties plummet, including Duval's.

The lovefest between a few national companies that make millions on unnecessary tests to "help" states comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act is spreading to Tallahassee.

The person answering the testing questions for vendor Harcourt was Russell Schweiss, previously Gov. Jeb Bush's press secretary.

He is now working for Harcourt, who has been paid $57,992,891 in taxpayer dollars. Their contract with the state expires in December, but is rumored to soon be renewed.

It seems unethical for Schweiss to be benefiting from Florida tax dollars poured into his current employer during the time he was a high-profile state employee.

According to the office of Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, another testing contractor, CTB/McGraw-Hill, has been paid $43,753,666 from June 2005 through February 2007. Last year, when the state was criticized about the qualifications of vendor CTB's employees scoring handwritten answers, CTB said it would begin verifying that its employees earned their claimed degrees.

CTB also said releasing the names of individual scorers would benefit competition and the names were exempt from Florida's public records law. The names and degrees were never released to the public.

Equally confusing, in early May state testing director Cornelia Orr called the students' performance in 2006 "stellar." In late May, Orr said, "Last year's (FCAT) scores were probably higher than what we should have had."

Under pressure from school leaders, Florida's Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg issued a press release: "Last year's test was not properly equated. The result: inflated scores that may have warped last year's school grades and allowed some students to skate into fourth grade with poor reading skills."

Senate Education Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, former superintendent of schools in Okaloosa County, told me: "We need to find out what the Department of Education knew and when they knew it."

Recent FCAT reliability problems come at a time when public opposition is mounting against high-stakes testing being used to grade schools and pay teachers.

Teachers, administrators, parents and students are raising serious questions about the millions being paid to companies such as Harcourt and CTB who may be motivated to give undue credit to initiatives such as the controversial Reading First.

This is not surprising, since other divisions of their companies provide curricular materials for these same programs.

The new book by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools, is gaining national attention.

It is dangerous to rely on a single metric to evaluate schools. Equally important to remember is it was the FCAT contractors and state administrators that failed here, not students.

These are the same FCAT scores that:

- Were used as the basis for distribution of millions of dollars in 2006 as rewards to schools that improved a letter grade or maintained their "A" status;

- Kept thousands of underperforming third-graders from receiving summer school and tutoring services they needed; and

- Are the basis for the state's teacher bonuses.

Reliable measures for progress are important. Obviously, efforts to provide FCAT-based pay incentives for high-performing educators are premature. A better move would be to begin differentiated pay by simply paying teachers more in areas of critical certification shortage.

Too much is at stake with the FCAT to be left in the hands of bureaucrats in Tallahassee and contractors in the lucrative testing industry. It is high time for Florida's state leaders to re-evaluate the politics involved in the FCAT.


William L. Bainbridge is Distinguished Research Professor for the University of Dayton and President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch, a national educational auditing, research, and data organization. bainbridge@schoolmatch.com

— William L. Bainbridge
Florida Times-Union


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