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Florida Schools’ Quest For Accountability

Since the Florida Legislature enacted its accountability act for public schools in 1976, the state has searched for tools to keep schools honest. The result is reliance — some would say an over-reliance — on standardized tests.

The 1976 act implemented statewide assessments that established the nation’s first high school graduation test and regular evaluations for grades three, five, eight and 11. The original State Student Assessment Tests and various iterations were eventually replaced with today’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

During the early 1990s, Florida drafted the Sunshine State Standards that required the education system to create benchmarks and provide content that focused more on “real-world applications.” The FCAT was designed around these new standards, and it now fills the role of the high-stakes test Florida’s students are required to pass to enter fourth grade or to graduate from high school. Since the test was rolled out in 1998, its use as a tool for accountability has changed the fundamental principles that govern the learning environment in schools.

My high school graduating class was the first required to pass the FCAT to earn a diploma, and I have followed the debate about the test’s role in Florida schools.

The FCAT was developed as a way to assess whether students in grades three through 11 meet a “minimum competency level” in reading, writing, science and mathematics as established by the Sunshine State Standards. Every year, students take different editions of the test depending on their grade levels. Currently, grades three through 10 are tested in reading and mathematics; grades five, eight and 11 are tested in science.

Tests for writing proficiency are to be added next year. The tests identify “achievement levels” from 1 through 5. Level 3 means students are performing at grade level. Tests results recently released for the years 2001-07 show significant improvements in reading and math scores. In 2001, 47 percent of Florida students scored at Level 3 on reading tests. That number has since climbed to 57 percent. Math scores climbed from 50 percent at the proficiency level in 2001 to 62 percent this year.

While those numbers suggest an improvement in the overall quality of education Florida students are receiving, other data offer reason for doubt. In Florida, high school graduates who complete the required academic courses, maintain a sufficient GPA and pass the FCAT earn a standard diploma; students who fail to meet those standards receive a certificate of completion. Since the 1999-2000 school year, the percentage of standard diplomas issued has declined, from 93 percent that year to 90 percent this year, while the number of certificates of completion has increased from 3.5 percent to 6.6 percent. So in terms of the ability of high school students to meet the state standards, there has been a decline.

Similarly, among college-bound Florida high school students, there has been a decline since 1998 in composite scores on the widely used Scholastic Aptitude Test. The composite score has dropped from 1,001 (out of a possible 1,600) to 993 in 2007, and the gap between all U.S. scores and those in Florida has widened from 16 points to more than 24. That gap has been even bigger in some years, reaching 32 points in 2005.

Meanwhile, Advanced Placement program scores show mixed results. The year 2000 produced the best AP test scores since 1987, according to the Florida Department of Education: Nearly 56 percent of all AP students in grades nine through 12 passed the exam in 2000. But by 2007, only 45 percent of the students taking APtests passed and earned college credit for APcourses. However, Florida’s graduating seniors have done better than the national average at earning AP college credits, ranking seventh nationally, according to a 2007 report of the College Board.

Many people believe that the best way to improve performance is to “put some skin in the game.” Florida has taken this approach by trying to tie the performance of students on the FCAT to the purse strings of teachers and their schools.

In recent years, test scores for students have been tied to teacher pay and have been used to give schools grades from A to F. Depending on the grade a school receives, it is eligible to receive additional funding. Any school that fails to perform well is subject to reprimands that could, in extreme cases, lead to its closure.

As a native of the Sunshine State and a product of its school system, I agree that requiring some accountability makes sense. But it is how schools are held accountable that matters. I believe that as a result of some policies that followed the FCAT’s introduction, schools have been led to overemphasize the test.

In a document called “FCAT Myths vs. Fact,” the Florida Department of Education addresses “teaching to the test.” Teachers who focus on the subject matter they ordinarily teach will give their students sufficient preparation for the test, the state says. The test should not receive undue attention.

But that’s easier said than done. When a school knows that its public image, and to some extent its funding, is tied to how students perform on the FCAT, there is bound to be some extra emphasis on passing the test.

I have firsthand experience with this. I remember all too well sitting in high school classes in which my teachers spent entire periods focusing on techniques to pass the test. They would discuss methods to eliminate wrong answers on the FCAT, or introduce strategies to make optimum use of time. There was an obvious change in how teachers approached class once the FCAT was given its high status. In those precious moments when we could have been learning skills that would prepare us for college, we were instead learning how to navigate the world of standardized tests.

The gravity of the test was evident in just about everything we did. Not only did we have to worry about the grades we received on our report cards, we also had to worry about the grade handed down to our school — which in the eyes of the public and the state was the grade that defined us all.

No education system and no assessment system is perfect, and the policies implemented in Florida have been somewhat beneficial. The number of schools receiving failing grades has decreased steadily since the grading system was established. Yet I think the state’s overdependence on standardized tests has caused some schools to structure a curriculum around the tests. And as the livelihoods of those in the system are tied to the FCAT, students will face even more class time spent turning them into professional testtakers instead of the well-rounded students Florida needs.

Senior Client Service Manager ReKeithen Miller, who is based in our Atlanta office, is the co-author of Chapter 14, “State Income Taxes” in our firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. He also contributed to the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.