Florida’s Mad Dash to Mediocrity

I’ll be pretty happy when FCAT week is over. My oldest is in an advanced math class, and for some time now the class stopped teaching its normal curriculum in order to reteach the FCAT math they learned a year or two ago. So they are preparing for the FCAT, even if it means neglecting their advanced studies. I shouldn’t be so selfish about my child’s education, right? Why should my child’s potential stand in the way of Florida’s race to have the most mediocre school system in the nation? (insert dripping sarcasm and parental outrage here!)

Florida’s emphasis on testing is insane. We have become a school system whose entire purpose seems to be to prepare kids for minimal competence tests that rate their schools. Education Week ranks Florida as having more tests and measurements than nearly any state in the union. Of course, you can weigh a malnourished dog every day – that doesn’t improve its health.

Here, testing has become teaching. If you think the FCAT is overemphasized now wait until teacher salaries and job security are indexed to it.

Florida made a huge mistake when it adopted a grading instrument that only measures how well schools move kids to minimal competence in a few subjects. While parents love to hear their school is an “A” school – all that means is that their school is more successful in moving children to grade level in basic math and reading (and sometimes science). Is that really all you wanted for your kids? It also means that courses not covered by the FCAT — history, foreign languages, high level math and English, art, music – don’t matter and are, therefore, terribly neglected. That is especially so when the Governor and legislature insist on cutting already anemic school funding. Is it any wonder that Florida schools have become so uninteresting that we host one of the worst graduation rates in the nation?

Other states – like New York’s Regent’s exams – don’t overemphasize the exams but rather measure minimal and maximum performance in many subject areas. Public school students motivated in New York to perform exceptionally on their exams become “Regents Scholars” – and that accomplishment has great cache with colleges. Ever heard of an FCAT Scholar? I tried to convince the state to adopt Regent’s style tests years ago – but they have moved slowly and won’t let go of the FCAT.

In fairness to the architects of the FCAT, I realize it’s hard to measure whether a child has reached his or her potential. But Florida seems to have decided since we can’t measure maximum performance, let’s just measure minimal competence. Let’s make our floor also our ceiling, and declare success when we reach this low water mark. It’s almost as if the creators of Florida’s grading system cynically believe that public schools are for the masses who should be happy with mediocrity, and anything more should be found in private schools. I couldn’t disagree more and, in fact, Florida’s Constitution guarantees “high quality” public education.

Well, next week Sophie’s advanced math teacher will work feverishly to catch up or she will just have to leave things out. But at least Sophie will know she played an integral part in Florida’s mad dash to mediocrity. As for me, I’m so mad I could spit.