FCAT and the Dogged Pursuit of Standardized Tests in America

The Florida Assessment Test (FCAT) is advertised by the state as part of Florida’s overall plan to increase student achievement in schools by raising standards. This is done by administering tests on writing for students in grades 4, 8, and 10; tests on reading and math for students in grades 3 through 10; and testing for science in grades 5, 8, and 11.

Let me state at the beginning that I taught tenth and eleventh grade English at a Florida high school and I took part in administering this test in addition to preparing my own students and tutoring other students after school hours. In other words, I have hands-on experience in dealing with this.

The FCAT is just one of many attempts by states across the union to impose a standardized level of learning in order to make it easier for politicians to prove they are improving the state of education in their states. But the FCAT, like all standardized tests, has certain built-in problems that will simply never be overcome. The major problem with standardized tests is that they expected, well, standardization.

Think about yourself and everyone you’ve ever met for a moment. Are you as good at math as you are at English? Are most people you know better at one or the other? I myself am a word guy through and through. I once took an IQ test and scored much higher than average on the verbal section. That’s not bragging. Because if I bragged about that, I’d have to hide the fact that I scored below average on the math section. I just don’t get math and I suspect I never will. My brain doesn’t work that way. Most people are the same way. You’re either better in math or English. The difference between your abilities may not be as wide as mine, but chances are there is a significant gap.

And yet here we have a system that not only expects all it students to be equally adept in math and English-and science-at the same time, but at the same age. These are children taking these tests, remember. Even in high school, their brains are still forming, synapses still firing. Not only we do we expect them all to be at the same level at the same age, but we expect them to be at this level no matter what their backgrounds, their emotional development, their family life situations. Those who create and promote these tests love to defend them against racial or cultural bias, saying that any student from any background can equally understand them.

The bias in these tests aren’t about race or culture or economic standing. I’ve seen kids from poor families do well and kids from well-off families tank. It’s not about economic bias. It’s about the bias against nature. Nature simply does not form every single brain in the same way. If it did, there would be no need for testing at all. We’d all be equally smart or dumb. A brain doesn’t form in a vacuum either. Put a rich kid alone in a room with no stimulation and a poor kid in a room with a TV and books and family members who share their knowledge and guess what happens. Guess who scores higher. It’s not about black or white or rich or poor. The brain forms based on the environment in which it inhabits and it doesn’t matter whether that environment has a 50 inch plasma screen TV and leather bound books or a 15 inch TV screen and paperbacks missing their covers.

And the thing is that you can never tell how these brains will go about forming. Sure, you can play Mozart and Beethoven to your child all day and he may still wind up either having no interest in music at all, or he may become the next Marilyn Manson. You can’t force a kid to be good in math or to be good in English. You can help enhance their natural inclination and you can certainly increase their ability in the subject they have trouble with. But it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to turn your little math whiz into an English whiz by forcing him to study a subject he just doesn’t care about and doesn’t get. I’ve put in long, grueling hours studying for math tests. I’ve bought software and I’ve watched TV shows and I’ve had brilliant teachers. I still can’t figure out how to solve an equation without studying examples.

For every DaVinci and Benjamin Franklin who seems capable of doing everything well, there are about twenty million others who can do one thing significantly easier than the other. Standardized tests ignore this very basic part of human anatomy. They insist that all tenth graders be able read, write and figure out mathematical equally. Isn’t that insane? It’s beyond crazy, it’s an exercise in futility. And yet the state of Florida as well as most others determine a child’s future based on this insanity.

The tests are what the entire school year revolves around. When I was a kid, the school year started in this county at the end of August. Last year it began in the first week. I live in northwest Florida. August is the hottest month of our year. Air conditioning is a necessity. Do you know how much electricity costs to cool all the schools here? Neither do I. I do know that the school year doesn’t start almost a month earlier than it once did because of weather-related concerns. Do you want to know why school starts less than a month after Independence Day? To allow more time prepare students for the FCAT.

Gov. Jeb Bush and other politicians love to say that teachers don’t “teach to the FCAT.” They claim that preparing for FCAT doesn’t take time away from such non-FCAT subjects as history, art, music, and other electives. In addition, supporters refute claims that English teachers aren’t prohibited from spending time teaching higher level critical thinking skills because they are too busy teaching the simple rote skills most necessary to passing these tests.

Let me put this as truthfully, yet delicately as I can: Those people are lying through their teeth.

I spent more time preparing my 10th grade students for the FCAT than I did teaching them anything else. The school administration is so fearful of lowered scores and what that means for their job security that the bulk of teaching material I received from the county dealt with teaching the FCAT. Because I was busy preparing these students for this one test-well, two actually because I had to prepare them for both a reading and writing test-I didn’t have time to have them read a novel. I had to choose the absolute shortest of short stories because there wasn’t time to engage them in a story of any great length.

Perhaps the most egregious part of preparing these students for the FCAT was the attempt to boost their skills through a computer program. Because of budget deficits and spending on futuristic war machinery, there aren’t enough computers for every student unless the ones in the library were used. Since I had anywhere from twenty to thirty students in my tenth grade classes, that meant that the bulk of the computers were occupied by my class, leaving other classes unavailable. And since there are more than one tenth grade English class going on at any one time, I had to reserve a date to get my students in there. Usually once or twice a week. Twice during a good week.

The software devised to teach these students was an embarrassment. Most of the time it didn’t work right and when it did it was a humiliating experience for teenagers involving animated talking bears and repetition of lessons. It reached the point where so many English teaches complained that the program was abandoned. It was a complete waste of time. Time that could have been spent teaching these kids English was instead wasted taking them to the library, setting up their computer accounts, watching as it crashed and policing them to make sure they were actually listening to the program instead of listening to music in the background. And most of the time at least half were listening to music. It was ridiculous. If that doesn’t qualify as teaching to the test, please explain what does.

I also take issue with the questions. Getting back to the bias issues, these questions don’t take into account the way a child’s mind works. Let me give you just one example. A question that appeared on a third grade practice test that my son was preparing for asked this apparently simple question: How long does a baseball game last? The answers ranged from two hours to two weeks. Notice it doesn’t say a Major League Baseball game or professional baseball game. And remember, this was asked of third graders who are roughly eight or nine years old. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid sometimes we started a baseball game that got interrupted by darkness or a storm and we didn’t finish it until days later. In this age of Xbox and Nintendo, I’m not sure if kids play baseball games like that anymore though I suspect it’s possible. And even if not, a video baseball game can be finished in less than half an hour. So I ask you, what is the proper response to that question if you are eight or nine? Forget about whether you’ve ever actually watched a baseball game or not. Forget about whether you have any interest in sports or not. No, wait. Don’t forget those things. They’re pretty important.

The makers of the tests and the politicians feeding off them can shout all they way that these questions aren’t biased in any way, but the fact remains that any question is going to be biased. Not just against a particular individual, but against entire segments of the population. If I were take a standardized test that asked how long it takes to shovel the average sidewalk of snow and the answers ranged from two minutes to two hours, I have to tell you I would merely be taking a shot in the dark. I live in Florida. Just the very rumor of snow is enough to shut down schools. I face a bias against simple questions involving how one reacts to severe cold weather.

And the problems with the questions don’t end with simple bias. Here’s a question from a test that asks students to read a short nonfiction essay: What does the author mean by this sentence from the essay?

“These seemingly random ways, these paths, these beds, these footprints, these hard, round pellets in the snow: they all have meaning.”

Four possibilities are given. I’m not even going to get into the confusion offered by the possible answers; instead let’s focus on that question. What does the author mean? Excuse me, but isn’t that an opinion? One of the things we focused on the most during preparing for the FCAT is teaching the students between fact and opinion. It’s really important because a lot of the questions revolve around this difference. But this particular question isn’t concerned with teaching the difference. Instead, it’s asking the student for an opinion but it’s grading him on a fact. The writers of this question have already determined that there is only one meaning to that sentence. Any other meaning to that the sentence that doesn’t coincide with theirs will be deemed wrong.

Umm, is anybody else bothered by this utter standardization of thought? We’re not only standardizing responses, but we’re standardizing interpretation. A student whose interpretation of this author’s meaning-and, hey, didn’t Foucault and Barthes teach us that trying to analyze an author’s meaning is a dead method of critical thinking-must correspond exactly within a small range of thought. I can read that sentence and come up with at least five different answers to what the meaning of it might be and then go on to justify that answer. But a student isn’t even given the opportunity for justification.

Which is another problem with standardization: the lack of critical engagement. Yes, there are essay questions associated with the writing portion, but for the most part these questions are all multiple choice. No explanation of an answer is required or accepted. And even the essay questions must correspond to an existing rubric.

Pres. Bush and his brother and all these people bemoaning the state of education in America today keep saying that we’re not going to be competitive with other countries because our kids are learning at a high level of achievement. But what kind of achievement is it to produce a generation of students who have all learned the same thing, and aren’t allowed to express the possibility of a different interpretation. I’m not talking about math here. One of the reasons I hate math is that because generally there is only one correct answer. In English that’s not true. A story has many interpretations. And if one word doesn’t work, then you can choose another. (Walk, saunter, amble, stroll.)

Standardization isn’t the answer to America’s future. (And by the way, even if we do produce a generation of geniuses who can do calculus while writing the great American novel, where are these people going to work? Most of the jobs that require extraordinary abilities are no longer available in America. We’ve become a service industry country and all we may be doing is training highly educated store clerks.) What standardization does is contrary to the every essence of education.

We’re going about things backward. We’re compartmentalizing our kids into a huge mass of conformity when instead we should be looking at what are kids can do best and teaching to that. I’ve never had a job that required high math skills and I’ll never get a job doing that. On the other hand, I wasted a great deal of my life avoiding college because I do I could pass the required math classes. What if we identified the strong skills in our students and we pushed them on those?

Pres. Bush and others keep saying we can’t be competitive in the world market unless we raise our educational standards. (I would ask why we can’t cooperate in the world market instead of compete, but then again I’m not a capitalist woolly-head). If we really want to compete, having a few hundred million adults who are all on the exact same level in every skill isn’t going to work.

But what if we had more English geniuses doing work in the language arts fields? What if we had more math geniuses doing work in the math-related fields? In other words, if a kid is brilliant in science and only so-so in English, why not allow him or her to take courses that appeal to the strength. I’m not advocating not teaching English skills or math skills to everybody. But why does every kid have to get past algebra? Why does every kid need to learn Shakespeare? It’s insane.

Conformity and standardization is killing the American education system, not strengthening it. We’re not doing ourselves any favors by trying desperately go against biology and make everybody equally adept in English, math and science. As long as the math guys knows how to spell correctly and string words together well enough to communicate an idea, what difference is it going to matter if doesn’t know the difference between Oedipus and Hamlet? And remember, I’m the English teacher saying this.

Equally important, why should the guy working with words all day need to know how to solve a trig problem? I’ve never had to in my life. Maybe I could have avoided some kind of problem in my life if I had and I’m just not aware of it, but I can live with that. I really can.

Is it really such an insane idea to teach to a student’s strength? As I said, that hardly means that we allow kids who aren’t strong in math to become total morons in the subject. But instead of wasting their time struggling to learn something they just don’t get and instead of wasting a teacher’s time trying to teach something that kids don’t get, wouldn’t it be better to take that kid out of calculus and put him into a class where he can learn the critical thinking skills associated with his strong point?

Students learn more when they take subjects they have an interest. Anybody who ever had gone to school knows that. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and engage in some logic: Anybody who has ever gone to school knows that students learn more in the subjects that interest them. Politicians don’t seem to realize that students learn more in the subjects that interest them. Therefore, politicians never went to school.

I know some math guy out there is going to point out how that is fallacious reasoning. And that’s why I’m a word guy.

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