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ZIP Code Edges are Battle Lines in FCAT War

Reader Comment: WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FINALLY SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Reader Comment: The new arena for combat has moved away from the teachers (who will be treated as robots or fired) to cheaters (may the most corrupt agency win). The alignment of warring bobble-headed-poppets backing the pseudoscience of test erasure will see some entrenched battles ahead.

By Frank Cerabino

Monday was a big day in the Cerabino household because it marked the beginning of the high-stakes testing season, that annual pageant of collective lunacy when we pretend that our little fifth-grade foot soldier is an important combatant fighting for the greater glory of his school in the Great FCAT War of 2011.

He's our third child, so we've been through these campaigns enough times to expect the drumbeat to battle which starts its distant tom-tomming in August and grows to a crescendo that culminates with the automated telephone call from the superintendant on the night before the opening skirmish.

It's a sham. Every bit of it.

And it's only going to get worse, now that Gov. Voldemort and his crew of marauders in Tallahassee have decided to saddle classroom teachers with a new evaluation system that ties half of their performance evaluations to their students' success on the FCAT.

The idea, at least on paper, is that "high-performing teachers" will get extra pay. But that's a joke too. Because there aren't any extra dollars. Public education is set to get a smaller piece of the budget pie due to the governor's decision not to replace federal stimulus dollars and to divert education dollars to a tax break for homeowners. Teachers are all getting screwed. The difference will be that the better ones won't be screwed as badly.

'A' is for affluence of students

Except that they're probably not the better ones, either. If you want to know which schools will do well on the FCAT, you don't have to consider the teachers at all. You just need to look at the school's ZIP code.

The idea that there's a direct relationship between the value of the teacher and the test scores of his or her students ignores the obvious: That what goes on in the students' lives outside the classroom is the biggest determinant of FCAT success.

That's why I'm fairly certain my son's school is going to get an "A" this year. That's because Addison Mizner Elementary School in Boca Raton has gotten an FCAT "A" every year for the past 12 years, and last year the school - which has a program for gifted kids - got the highest FCAT score of all the district's elementary schools.

Teachers and administrators have come and gone during that time, but the school's success in standardized testing has always been exemplary.

Why? Maybe it's because only 7 percent of Addison Mizner students get free or reduced-price lunch, as compared with Roosevelt Elementary School in West Palm Beach, which has 7 percent of its students who don't get free or reduced price lunch.

Social, economic factors best gauges

Roosevelt students traditionally score below the county averages in math and reading FCATs, and they'll really have something to celebrate if they pull out an "A" on the FCAT this year.

But if they don't, does that mean that their teachers are less worthy and ought to be paid less than Addison Mizner's teachers?

It's no secret that social and economic factors are valid predictors of educational success. When The Palm Beach Post studied the difference between "F" schools and "A" schools nine years ago, the newspaper found that most students in schools that performed poorly in the FCAT came from homes saddled with poverty. They were more likely to be black or Hispanic. And they were more likely to be a single-parent household.

In the year of the study, "F" school West Riviera Beach Elementary, had 36 percent of its students in a household where two parents were present, while "A" school Binks Forest Elementary in Wellington had 91 percent of its students in two-parent households.

Perversely, a merit pay system will drive good teachers away from schools that really need the help and toward schools that don't.

And that's not all. The idea that test scores will rise once merit pay is in place has also been shown to be a faulty assumption.

A Vanderbilt University research team set up a three-year experiment in Nashville middle schools, establishing a merit pay system that rewarded mathematics teachers up to $15,000 in bonuses if their students got higher scores in the statewide standardized tests. The study then compared the success rates of the 296 teachers who participated in the study, which eventually paid out more than $1.27 million in bonuses, with the success rate of math teachers who weren't receiving bonuses.

"We find no overall effect, pooling across years and grades, of teacher incentive pay on mathematics achievement," the study concluded.

But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that a merit pay system based on test scores fails on every account.

It does a great job in providing a talking point for politicians looking to curry favor with those voters who revel in the vilification of public school teachers, whom they view as just another unworthy class of entitlement recipients.

So welcome to another FCAT war, parents. Play your role with honor. And may the best ZIP code win.

Frank Cerabino has been aMetro columnist for The Post since 1991.

— Frank Cerabino
Palm Bach Post


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