Wednesday, November 14, 2007

FCAT me? No! FCAT you!

I'm not a big fan of standardized testing in general, or of tests like the MCAS and FCAT in particular (for those out of state, these are tests that all students in Massachusetts and Florida, respectively, must take in order to graduate from high school.)

One reason I oppose these tests is that I have never met a teacher who thinks they are beneficial. I know hundreds and hundreds of teachers.

Whether you're with me or not, you should enjoy today's story in the Naples Daily News about a cheeky little middle-schooler who turned the tables on school administrators:

The spirit behind the FCAT and its ilk is laudable: we as a nation are failing way too many of our students, and we have to raise the standard of education across the board in some way that is actually measurable. There are too many kids graduating from high school still illiterate, both in the narrow sense of the word - they can't read or write - and in the broader sense of knowing very little that we would expect a citizen to know. "Japan? Isn't that in Boston?" is the title of one of my favorite Russell Baker essays. It speaks for much that is wrong with American education. (Actually, Japan is in the Porter Square neighborhood of Cambridge).

Alright, so eliminating the FCAT will leave us where we were before, unable to measure our students, and by inference our teachers and our schools.

...If only it were that simple-minded. I mean simple.

How do we accredit colleges and universities? How do we rank them? Because ours are the best in the world - at least, that's what students, parents, and employers world-wide believe. So if our colleges are so good... can't we measure our k-12's by a similar yardstick?

Rather than distract teachers and students with lessons that teach how to take the FCAT, how about if our society gets back to educational basics: all kids will learn at least basic math, science, the classics (Homer, Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, Hemingway...), history, and geography. Have you taken classes in the above? Have you passed? Then you're on your way to the next grade.

How well are our schools doing? Let's see... what kind of colleges are the kids getting into? How many are opting out of college? How many are dropping out before they even graduate? There. That's your test for schools - and by inference, of educators.

Life isn't as complicated as we make it. One way we can simplify things is with smaller classes, smaller schools, and smaller school systems. When our school system has 35,000 kids (Collier County) or 80,000 (Lee County), then a 5%, 10%, 40% dropout rate becomes just that - a percentage, a "rate." I have an alternative yardstick for you: If one kids drops out of school before graduation, or fails to go on to college, that is one life forever limited.

Imagine, my upper-middle-class or affluent readers, if one of your - what, 2.1? - children dropped out of school at 16. Wouldn't you drop everything to turn her life around? But when 900 sophomores don't make it to their junior year, that's just a number to us. Statistics put the numb in numbers. These are children. These are people. Citizens. Workers. Voters. Can we afford even one failure?

I've been called an idealist. Thank you.

I've heard, even from friends with the best of intentions, that we will never end poverty, never educate everyone on the scale I suggest.

You know what? That's none of my business. If you think it can't be done, tell someone who cares.

Let's do it. That's my answer. We'll let possibility worry about itself. All sorts of things are impossible until you try.