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NCLB Outrages

The Test

by Paul A. Moore

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 judge.

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 contract.

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 privatization."

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."

— Paul A. Moore, Cornelia S. Orr, Claudia Wallis
letters and Time Magazine


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