What is a high-stakes test?

FCAT is a high-stakes test. It is a single, defined assessment that draws a clear line between those who pass and those who fail and delivers direct consequences to students, teachers and schools. A “high-stakes system” benefits people other than the test-taker. The purpose of the test is to protect the public from incompetent teachers. In this system student test scores affect others beyond the individual test-taker.

“High-stakes” does not refer to the test itself, but rather the consequences placed on the outcome. In gambling, the “stake” is the money or goods risked on the outcome of the game. In 2001, No Child Left Behind tied school funding, ratings and a child’s chances of moving forward in school to test scores. It thrusts test takers who must pass the exam to “win” into stress, uncertainty, potential loss while allowing no way of obtaining the goal through other means.

Florida third graders, who fail FCAT are held back and labeled failures in the eyes of the state regardless grade point average. Failure impacts the entire system. Serious consequences for schools include loss of funding, accreditation, lowering of overall school grade, changes to school management and teachers face loss of pay and dismissal.

Although test scores might improve when teachers spoon-feed students a steady diet of test prep review, the long term consequences are concerning. Professional educators faced with high-stakes consequences are robbed of the chance to practice the art of teaching leaving students deprived of acquiring the deep understanding of full, broad curriculum needed to compete in college.

The high-stakes FCAT has caused teachers and principals strive to put most of their efforts into reading, writing and math. The curriculum has been severely narrowed. Nearly every Florida school has reduced instruction time in subjects such as history, arts, language and music, in order to give more time and resources to mathematics and English.

FCAT is a criterion referenced test. It is measured against itself and does not allow Florida’s children to be compared against the performances of their peers across the nation. As part of the reform effort, Florida stopped paying for the Stanford Test, the only norm-referenced test Florida’s children took. This eliminated the chance to ever making a true “apples to apples” comparison with children in other states.

The FCAT is often inflated by the state. For example:

  • FCAT READING: 54% on level
  • NAEP: 32% on level
  • FCAT MATH: 66% on level
  • NAEP: 29% on level Source: Florida 8th Grade Proficiency as measured by Florida State Tests and NAEP for SY 2008-09.

A Nation at Risk

The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 alarmed citizens with its claim that the American public education system was failing. As the report noted, it was believed that

If the education system did not receive a major overhaul, our economic security would be severely compromised. American culture has internalized this claim to such a degree that questions about how to solve this “crisis” continue to be at the top of many policy makers’ agendas.

Although our education system is not as bad off as some would have the public believe, 16 the rhetoric of a failing education system has led to a series of initiatives that have transformed the role and function of the American public school system. High-stakes testing holds a prominent place in this transformation.

The earliest and most common form of high-stakes testing was the practice of attaching consequences to high school graduation exams (i.e., students had to pass a test to receive a high school diploma). New York’s Regents examinations served this purpose for over 100 years and states such as Florida, Alabama, Nevada, and Virginia had instituted high-stakes graduation exams at least as far back as the early to mid 1980s.

But in the years since A Nation at Risk, the rhetoric of high expectations, accountability, and ensuring that all students-especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds-have an equal opportunity to receive quality education has been accompanied by a series of federal initiatives including Clinton’s 1994 re-authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary School Act, subsequent education “policy summits,” and George H. W. Bush’s Goals 2000.

In combination, these initiatives have progressively increased the demands on teachers and their students and have laid the groundwork for what was to come next-an unprecedented federal intervention on state level education policy-making that directs all states toward a single goal (i.e., 100% of students reaching “proficiency”) via a single system of implementation (i.e., standards-based assessment and accountability). — source: High Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems with No Child Left Behind, p.4, Arizona State University,

No Child Left Behind

History of FCAT in Florida

In 1997, before Jeb Bush, the state of Florida developed what would become the FCAT. It was designed to be used as a diagnostic tool not the high-stakes pass/fail final label it has become. The notion of statewide testing started taking shape in 1968 with the passage of the Educational Accountability Act which instructed the Commissioner of Education to expand the Department of Education’s capability for constructive educational change and services to achieve greater quality in education.

In 1970, Florida enacted Chapter 70-399, Laws of Florida, stating that the Commissioner was to develop evaluation procedures “designed to assess objectively the educational programs offered by the public schools . . . and (develop) such methods as are necessary to assess the progress of students at various levels.” The goal was to provide each school district with the relevant comparative data and, to the extent possible, be compatible with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The 1971 Legislature adopted the Commissioner’s Plan for Educational Assessment in Florida, enacting the Educational Accountability Act (Section 229.57, Florida Statute. (source: FDOE)

As thinking evolved, Florida set goals for Florida public education and the State Board of Education adopted them in 1971 and revised them in 1975. They set forth general student skills in seven areas ranging from basic to advanced learning. Goals for education in Florida were developed by Department of Education staff, adopted by the State Board of Education in 1971, and revised in 1975. They outline general, desirable student skills in seven areas, ranging from basic to advanced learning. These goals were:

  1. Mastery of basic skills: Required to gain and express fundamental ideas through the use of words, numbers, and an examination of other symbols.
  2. Mental and Physical Health Goal: Help students acquire and maintain good health habits and emotional well-being.
  3. Relationship Development Goal: involved relationships with other people: the appreciation of the family as a social institution;
  4. Moral Goal: Instill moral, ethical, and spiritual values.
  5. Citizenship Education Goal: Directed at improving habits and attitudes for responsible citizenship.
  6. Occupational Interests Goal: Strives to alert students to job opportunities and to develop skills and attitudes necessary for productive work.
  7. Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation Goal: Proposes that students “develop understanding and appreciation of human achievement in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts.”

In setting these goals, the State defined its responsibilities to ensure that every child acquire essential skills.

Fast forward to January 1998, Jeb Bush is sworn into his first term as Governor. That year Florida legislators and Governor Bush used FCAT to set in motion what we have today – a high-stakes test that is not transparent, no longer nationally norm referenced, not used to grant or deny access to any college or university yet is used to condemn and label third graders as losers. The narrow scope of FCAT forces “teaching to the test” in Math and Reading and attaches a monetary value to every child who takes the test. Student test scores will determine whether their teachers will earn merit pay, be fired, whether their school will earn an “A” and receive additional funds and represent 50% of every teacher’s overall performance evaluation.

The dramatic contrast between the goals set in 1971 and Florida’s current culture of devaluing teachers and defunding public schools is troubling. We are a very long way from politicians who openly expressed ethical compassion for the children of this state. Florida has changed.

Florida history is a powerful reminder that there were once leaders with real hopes for the children living here. There was a time when Florida lawmakers thought it was important that children “develop an understanding and appreciation of human achievement in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and the arts.” Those 1971 goals reflect leaders who viewed the state’s children as people, not data minions in a high-stakes test factory. History is the ultimate mentor.

Florida's Inflated Test Scores

The High Cost of Dropping Out In Florida

Dropouts from the class of 2010 will cost Florida almost $24 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes.*

  • Dropouts and poorly prepared students negatively affect the economy:
  • Nearly 90,500 students did not graduate from Florida’s high schools in 2010; the lost lifetime earnings in Florida for that class of dropouts alone is nearly $24 billion.
  • Florida could save as much as $1.5 billion in healthcare costs over the lilfetimes of each class of dropouts had they earned their diplomas.
  • If Florida’s high schools graduated all of their students ready for college, the state could save as much as $194 million a year in community college remediation costs and lost earnings.
  • Florida’s economy could see a combination of crime-related savings and additional revenue of about $507 million each year if the male high school graduation rate increase by just 5%. (*source: Alliance for Excellent Education)

As Florida’s dropout rate continues to grow, its numbers and their ramifications are compounded every year. Florida’s high-stakes testing model labels optimistic 3rd graders and leaves them with little doubt that the state considers them a failure. Labeling schools and children set them up for future failure.

The Dropout Crisis

“A variety of national data analyzed by the Center for Labor Market Studies show that conservatively all youth between the ages of 16 and 24 (6,173,883 individuals) that had left high school without a regular diploma by 2007. Although the crisis cuts across all states, racial, income and gender lines – low income youth and young Black and Hispanic males are hardest hit. The Federal No Child Left Behind Act makes no provisions for re-enrolling dropouts and putting them back on the pathway to graduation.” Left Behind: The Nation’s Dropout Crisis, May, 2009

The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that if the 1.3 million high school dropouts from the class of 2010 earned their diplomas instead of dropping out, the U.S. economy would have seen an additional $337 billion in wages over these students’ lifetimes. And that’s only for one year – the country can expect to lose well over $300 Billion in potential earnings next year as well, due to dropout from the class of 2011. If this annual pattern is allowed to continue, 13 million students will drop out of school during the next decade at a cost to the nation of more than $3 TRILLION.

Why is this an issue now? As we all know, in the past many students didn’t’ finish school and still went on to do well in life. However, those days are gone. In today’s global technology-driven economy, education is the main currency. For example, by 2018, over 60 percent of jobs will require some education beyond high school. However, recent projections estimate that we will fall far short of meeting this demand if we continue with our current high school and post secondary graduation rates.

In addition, today’s economy is much more global. Whereas past generations of Americans only had to compete for jobs from Boston or Birmingham, today’s students compete with students from Bangalore and Bangkok. The rapidly growing markets of the past quarter century have created a booming global economy and very real international competition. And, based on the most recent international data, American students are already coming up short. In fact, nearly every international assessment shows that American students typically fall short of their counterparts in other countries.

Thirty years ago, the United States was the world leader in educational attainment, but the United States has fallen to 18th of the 26 industrialized countries in the proportion of students who graduate from high school. The United States has remained similarly stagnant in the attainment of higher education degrees; the U.S. is now `14th out of 26 industrialized nations in the proportion of adults with college degrees. American students also lag behind their international peers in student achievement. In addition, American fifteen-year-olds rank 14th out of 24 OECD countries in reading literacy, 17th of 24 countries in science and 25th of 34 countries in mathematics literacy. — (Excerpted from : Alliance for Excellent Education)

Dropping out in Florida

In July 2009, Johns Hopkins University released a report called Graduating America: Meeting the Challenge of Low Graduation Rate High Schools. Although the study identifies 16 states with low graduation rates, it singles out Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and South Carolina as coming under the Statewide Crisis Category.

These states have a dense concentration of low graduation and high dropout rates. What is significant is that in other states the dropout crisis is limited to specific urban areas. In Florida, our schools with high dropout rates exist equally in rural or urban areas. The entire state is affected by this crisis. Co-author Robert Balfanz and Adria Steinberg make it clear that since Florida is the third largest state in the country, having anything near a 50% graduation rate has a very negative impact on the entire country. In essence, just like some of the financial institutions, we’re too big to fail.

The biggest reason Florida has such a high drop-out rate is something called the “achievement gap.” Specifically, this term refers to groups of students who repeatedly under-perform in literacy and math as reflected by FCAT scores.

The Achievement Gap

The achievement gap is the difference between higher performing groups of students and lower performing students. In Florida, some of the most important achievement gap areas are: 62% of all dropouts are male, 22% are black and 29% are Hispanic, U.S. Department of Education, 2009 EdFacts Floridians can be sure of the fact that our statewide longitudinal data system has all four elements needed to calculate 4-year graduation rates with a regular diploma. Even with all of the unfunded mandates and neglecting to make education a priority, we have spent money on this system. This is the one thing that might get our state some of the Race to the Top Money. The irony is that this data is what will be used to definitively illustrate for the Governor, legislators and the voters the price we are paying for not investing in this state or its children.

Florida Legislature Mandates AYP Two Years Early

In 2010, the Florida Legislature decided to impose Adequate Yearly Progress and Differentiated Accountability nearly 3 years before they were officially required in the 2012 reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. As a result, the achievement gap is now further measured when students are judged against the 39 categories needed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as specified in No Child Left Behind. Our current dropout situation reflects the hopelessness of this lowest tier of students who, when placed under the repeated stress of standardized testing, failure, re-testing and often two or three year stints in “remediation” classes often come to the conclusion that they have to quit their education altogether.

Learning is the relationship between the teacher and the student. High stakes testing, forced retention and perceived failure causes kids to lose interest in learning. According to the Rand Corporation’s Pre- school Study, the achievement gap becomes evident in kindergarten when many of these children come to school lacking the basic social skills and early literacy skills they need to succeed. Kindergarten is where the foundation of reading, the value of studying and the importance of consistency start to take root. The Rand study finds that the children who start out behind, tend to stay behind.

Flash forward to third grade, when students first take FCAT. Those who are not proficient readers get their first low score and a cycle is born. It is extremely hard to catch up. Although teachers and staff often work tirelessly with this group, the gains each student makes might be deemed inadequate by AYP standards. FCAT Math is introduced in 4th grade. Too often, the simple act of memorizing math facts is too difficult for students.

In nearly every other country where education excellence is a priority, the students memorize the multiplication/division/addition/subtraction tables, cold. No questions asked. They do this because it remains the best way to achieve speed and accuracy when solving higher math problems. In Florida students are allowed to use calculators for the math portion of FCAT. Calculators are not allowed for SAT, AP or other standardized tests.

Clearly, students who depend on calculators and do well on FCAT Math might not do as well on other tests. The statistics show that while there have been gains among the economically disadvantaged 4th graders, by the time these students reach 8th grade, they are significantly behind. Take reading, for example: According to the U.S. Department of Education; in 4th grade 44% of white students, 16% of black students, 28 % of Hispanic students and 57% of Asian students are performing at or above proficiency. By 8th grade, 36% of white students, 13% of black students, 23% of Hispanic students and 46% of Asian students are at or above proficiency. * By the time these students take their final FCAT in 10th grade, many are so far behind that they have lost hope. *U.S. Department of Education, 2009 EdFacts

New reality: FCAT, Differentiated Accountability and AYP Mean Schools Face An Uncertain Future

Differentiated Accountability meshes school grades with the No Child Left Behind Act. It strives to make sure all children are doing well and if they need help, the level of oversight and assistance given to their school is directly related to need. Title 1 schools that receive federal anti-poverty assistance are in the new system because they are covered by NCLB. Now, other schools will be included. If a school is not making enough Adequate Yearly Progress with certain groups or subsets of students such as free or reduced lunch receivers or English as a second language learners.

Now everyone, including A-rated schools could be sanctioned for not making AYP. If they do not show the predetermined level of achievement, teachers and administrators will receive a close review. They are expected to come up with plans to help the groups of students on their campuses who are not doing well. Even the students who consistently make As are expected to improve.

The system features a five-tiered structure with categories such as Prevent I, Prevent II, Correct I, Correct II and Intervene. Intervene schools can be closed down and the entire staff may be fired. The state steps in to supervise.

FCAT + AYP = One Impossible Yardstick

High schools are in an uneasy place right now. Everyone is feeling the pain inflicted by new standards and the knowledge that no matter what is achieved, the goal will soon be moved.

FCAT now shares equal weight with Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in determining individual high school ratings. AYP measures the students in a school by 39 different criteria. If a school does not make its pre-determined percentage of AYP for the year in any of the 39 criteria, it fails to make AYP. As of this writing, no district in the state has achieved AYP. The percentages will be increased every year and soon all schools will be required to make 100% AYP in each of the 39 criteria. No room for the Bell Curve, just one flat line.

Your “A” school will be immediately subject to sanctions and a possible further loss of funding. Principals will be faced with working day and night, in the shadow of a looming $2.6 billion budget shortfall, to bring underperforming subgroups in the 39 criteria up to AYP. None of this remediation is budgeted. There is no money provided to pull this off. After this year, Florida’s graduation rate will be defined strictly as only those students who get a standard or honors 4-year diploma after spending the required time in high school and meeting all of the performance benchmarks. No one else is counted in this figure. The pressure on teachers, students and administrators is enormous.

If these schools do not improve their teaching staff and administrators, the schools face a five-tiered system of punitive intervention: Prevent I, Prevent II, Correct I, Correct II and Intervene.

State "Drop Out" Number Misleading

So, what about drop outs? Let’s be clear: The state currently classifies “Drop outs” as those kids who simply stop going to school and have no other plan to finish their education. That number is usually low. What that number doesn’t reflect is that the way a school system loses a student often isn’t a clear-cut declaration that he or she is simply leaving school. Most kids leave after taking a meandering path through some of the available options, failing to engage and giving up. They’re not really drop outs but they’re certainly not graduates. This percentage of kids is large and growing and represents the gap between those who get their 4 year degree and those who truly drop out. If Florida has a 57% graduation rate, than this group represents the remaining 40% of the student population. This group is at the root of the differences noted by the Education Week surveys and our own Florida Department of Education numbers.

Florida also passed a law imposing the strictest enforcement of the Sunshine State Standards. There is no money allocated for the “remediation” frequently required in the law. Increasing standards is important. Legislators need to know that simply moving the goal doesn’t mean that the kids will make it. By making everything so “standards-driven” we are at risk of sending even more of those kids who are fragile and frustrated away altogether. Many may become convinced that they can’t measure up to the new standards and decide to leave altogether.

Every student doesn’t fit into a perfect circle. All of these rigid standards create a long flat line that deems success or failure. What happened to the bell curve of life? Clearly, not every student will go to college. That fact shouldn’t break any child’s spirit or kill their desire to learn. We have no plan for high- level prestigious alternatives like the Technical Academies found in Singapore where students are expected to do well in the core curriculum, but can opt into programs that develop their talents. There is absolutely no investment in this sort of option here. This is yet another example of economic loss to our state. (See link below)

Raising standards is important. But raising standards in the absence of proper funding for implementation, clear thinking about whether these changes will really allow our kids to compete globally and ensuring that the whole exercise isn’t just an exhausting and expensive dance of “move the goal” is equally important. At the end of the day, all of these hoops better result in globally competitive curriculums, satisfied teachers and successful students. If they don’t, this is just another abusive round of chemotherapy for a very sick patient.

What is Florida's true graduation rate?

While the Florida State Department of Education claims 71% graduation rate, it’s also counting students who pass just the GED. This is where Florida and the No Child Left Behind Act differ. The GED is not considered an equivalent to a high school diploma by many education experts and the federal formula doesn’t count them.

Back in 2002, the Manhattan Institute released a study stating that, “just over half of Florida’s public school students earned a diploma in four years, giving the state the lowest graduation rate in the country.” Florida’s graduation rate in 2006, according to the latest Diplomas Count Study from Education Week, was 57%, fifth lowest in the nation. In fact, according to this study, going back to 1995, Florida has never been much above a 60% graduation rate.

Types of Diplomas available in Florida

  1. Standard Diploma: Awarded to students who meet all requirements of graduation during the recognized 4-year high school enrollment time frame
  2. Honors Diploma: Must Meet the requirements for standard diploma and have a 4.0 GPA OR Meet the requirements for a standard diploma, obtain a score of 25 on the ACT or 1120 on the SAT, and have a 3.0 weighted GPA
  3. Certificate of Completion: Awarded to students who earn required credits, but are unable to meet the 2.0 GPA requirements or pass the FCAT
  4. Special Diploma: Awarded to students who meet the standards established by the Florida Department for Exceptional Student Education. They will be awarded the diploma according to the requirements of their specific exceptional education program.
  5. State of Florida High School Equivalency Diploma (formerly GED Exit Option): In most districts, students who struggle with school and the FCAT can be identified by their teachers and counselors for this diploma. This is not a standard GED. It is an opportunity for students to accelerate the remedial process in order to meet grade level standards and pass FCAT Math and Reading and earn a State of Florida High School Equivalency Diploma.

State of Florida High School Equivalency Diploma/GED Exit Option

For thousands of students, this option is their only real chance to earn a high school diploma. Each district has a dropout prevention specialist whose job it is to ensure that at risk kids stay engaged in school and earn their diplomas. The risk of these students dropping out is very high and the state should never lose an opportunity to redirect students back into the education system. So, while these students may not finish their high school requirements within 4 years, they are taking and passing the FCAT, taking and passing the CORE requirements and in effect finishing school. A huge achievement for many that allows them to go to start college at a 2 year school.

Should students who only receive a Standard GED be counted as high school graduates?

By definition, GED recipients have dropped out of school; the system has failed them in some way, and schools should not receive “credit” as if they had succeeded in educating and graduating these students. For these reasons, GED recipients are not counted under the No Child Left Behind Act, nor are they counted as graduates in most of the modern methods that calculate high school graduation rates. Source: Meeting the Graduation Challenge: Handbook for Communities, Johns Hopkins University.

It should be noted that the Race To The Top Grant requires that states get rid of programs that dumb down standards and assessments. The movement is toward uniform standards across all states. Meanwhile, much of the evidence regarding dropouts points to the importance of getting GED recipients and disconnected youth to reenter the education pathway. In order to go to college, GED recipients must attend a two-year community college first and if they qualify, can go to a 4 year university after that.