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The FCAT Has Eaten Some of Florida's Schoolchildren

At 159 schools in 30 counties, a suspiciously large number of students disappeared just before the FCAT was administered in February and March. The students unaccountably "transferred" to -- who knows where? Florida's Department of Education is looking into the mass migration because the kids might have gotten "lost" so that their FCAT scores wouldn't drag down FCAT-based school grades.

Ten schools in Palm Beach County and one in Martin are on the list of schools with mysterious vanishings. "We're not just looking into transfers," said Education Department spokeswoman Frances Marine. "Playing with the numbers is not something that we will stand for. We're looking at any way the school districts tried to circumvent accountability."

But what about the ways the Education Department itself circumvents accountability? For example, as The Post reported June 17, the state changed the rules so that 191 schools statewide -- 21 of them in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties -- could get A's instead of B's this election year.

What was the change? Like most of the plethora of factors governing school grades -- including the break that lets schools discount "transfer" students -- it is likely to induce head-scratching. For schools to get an A, lower-scoring students had to progress year-to-year at roughly the same rate as higher-scoring students. This year, though, the higher-scoring students can leave the lower-scoring students behind at a faster clip. Clear? The state has made similarly arcane changes every year, making any claims of "accountability" laughable.

The rules are so dense yet so malleable that they have turned the Education Department into a powerful and opaque bureaucracy, courtesy of Gov. Bush and his brother, the president. Not what you'd expect from get-government-out-of-my-hair Republicans.

One devious possibility is that the Bushes intentionally are creating punitive bureaucracies to drive people away from public schools. Even in the face of repeated voucher-school scandals, Jeb's beloved private voucher schools have not been saddled with the bureaucratic requirements -- such as the FCAT and school grades -- imposed on public schools.

Last week's release of FCAT-based school grades provides proof of runaway bureaucracy. No one outside of the bureaucracy can explain the school grades, and I doubt that many people inside the education bunker can, either.

Parents generally have a pretty good idea what it means when their kids get graded. An A or a B is good, C is a warning, and D and F mean it's time to ground the kid or hire a tutor or both. With some prying, the parent even can figure out why the student got the grade he or she did. Teachers will be able to produce the actual tests and papers and projects that formed the basis for the grade.

Yet when the whole school is graded, as Gov. Bush and President Bush now require, the parent has no idea what to make of it all -- particularly since Gov. Bush won't release the graded tests. The steps the state goes through to assign grades under the A+ Plan and the federal No Child Left Behind Act are complicated and arbitrary, allowing grades to be manipulated for political benefit. Worse, results from the federal and state regimes conflict. Palm Beach County had 81 schools rated A by the state, but 40 of those flunked under No Child Left Behind.

But enough about the No Child Left Behind. Let's get back to Some Child Left Before. Before the FCAT, that is. Where did they go? Some possibilities:

Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld needs the recruits. Lots of the kids are elementary-school age, but we'll probably still need the recruits by the time they turn 18.

Voucher schools. Where the FCAT -- and reading and writing -- don't matter.

The Department of Education. FCAT refugees would make perfect education bureaucrats. Who better to turn out incomprehensible rules?

Scripps Florida. Jeb has been using Florida's school kids as guinea pigs. There's no reason that the biomedical research pioneer shouldn't "hire" them for some high-stress testing.

jac_versteeg@pbpost.com

— Jac Wilder VerSteeg, Editorial Writer

2004-06-24
http://www.palmbeachpost.com/opinion/content/auto/epaper/editions/thursday/opinion_049d9fa132d7f06a00e1.html


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