The Florida Department of Education took the remarkable step last week of Tweeting the Bush Foundation’s “Get the Facts on FCAT”. It was the latest instance which confirmed that the powerful former governor is doing the heavy PR lifting to save the test-based accountability system he began. Writes skeptical Orlando Sentinel reporter, Leslie Postal:
It’s no secret that Jeb Bush’s education foundation is a fan of Florida’s school accountability system — and the standardized tests its based on. After all, the system was put in place during Bush’s first stint as Florida’s governor.
So with school board members across Florida voicing concern — and sometimes anger — about that system, the Foundation for Florida’s Future is responding with a five-part series titled Get the Facts on FCAT (three parts are out so far).
The gist of the series is that critics don’t always understand the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or how the state uses the results.
”Florida is a national leader in adopting and implementing new, higher standards to better prepare students to master crucial skills” and a “fundamental part of this strategic plan is our state’s data-based accountability system – a system fueled by Florida’s nationally lauded standardized assessments, ” the first piece said.
It goes on to say that “there has been some confusion surrounding testing in Florida” and that the series will “break down some common misconceptions on this issue to clearly separate fact from fiction.”
Among its points? Some argue the FCAT is made by people “far removed from the classroom,” but hundreds of teachers each year take part in the process of creating FCAT’s exams.
Or on the FCAT: ”The test helps all of us — teachers, parents and school leaders — know which students are struggling, so we can work to intervene.”
Of course, some who are most upset by the current testing system also argue that the influential foundation — and by extension the still influential former governor — have too much, well, influence over state education policy, so they likely won’t be swayed by the arguments it puts forth.
A primary benefactor of Bush’s lobbying efforts is Pearson, the corporate giant which designs and administrates FCAT and state end-of-course exams. What still goes largely unreported by the Florida media is that Pearson helps fund Bush’s foundations. Moreover, Bush efforts aren’t even seen as lobbying per se – let alone as one of a rainmaker with unprecedented influence.
This being said, another dose of skepticism is in order with yesterday’s news that the FDOE – along with the man who was Jeb Bush’s education commissioner – released a watered down report of what really went wrong in the FCAT Writes scoring debacle in March. Writes Postal again:
The internal review was led by John Winn, a former education commissioner.
The review concluded there were no technical problems with the test, which was properly put together, field tested and scored.
It also concluded the department was correct to push for tougher writing standards. The essay-writing portion of FCAT has been around for 19 years and undergone few changes.
But there has been a “longstanding interest” in boosting writing requirements. That’s in part because the exam’s essays were always viewed as drafts with fairly lenient grading.
The changes meant more focus on spelling and grammar and a push for more focused essays with more relevant details.
The review found that the department notified districts — but not with enough urgency. Some of the department’s “staff development activities” that dealt with the writing changes were focused mostly on the upcoming transition to “common core” standards, so writing changes “seemed to have not been given center change.”
Winn is neither independent nor impartial. Both he and the FDOE aren’t being entirely forthcoming either as Winn signalled this very same conclusion a month ago in a Tallahassee Democrat opinion piece:
It is certainly true that the Department of Education made mistakes with the new FCAT Writing changes. It tried to implement the changes too fast. But the standards and scoring criteria were produced through a consensus of Florida and national language arts specialists — the best we have. We need to learn from these mistakes and be more deliberative in the future. It should not be an excuse to throw out one of the most credible assessments in the country.
So were the report’s conclusions – at least a month old - part of the PR offensive that in began in the aftermath of the FCAT Writes debacle? Arguably so. With a money trail, cozy relationships and appearances of self-interests clear, Floridians have justifiably become leery of information that comes from the FDOE or either of Bush’s education foundations. “People just don’t like test” missives and “Misconceptions versus Facts ” propaganda pieces don’t engender trust.