High-Stakes Tests, English Language Learners and Florida Voucher Expansion

Tampa Tribune reporter Anastasia Dawson is emerging as one of Florida’s top education reporters. Even though FCAT was administered for the last time in March, Dawson writes how one vulnerable group still stands to be imperiled by the state’s end-all mandate of one high-stakes test.

 — When Rami Abraham came to the U.S. from Syria in 2007, he was looking to turn his life around, graduate high school, enroll in a technical school and embark on a successful career.

Yet despite excellent attendance and grades, Abraham, a senior at Enterprise High School in Clearwater, won’t be graduating with his high school diploma at the end of the year unless he passes the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

And with Florida schools moving to a new standardized test and education standards next school year, both of which promise more reading and writing, passing the test is looking like more of a long shot for students like Abraham, who speak English as a second language.

Abraham is not alone. In Florida, only 11 percent of 9,320 English Language Learners, known as ELL students, earned a passing score on the 10th-grade level reading test last year — a graduation requirement. The statewide passing rate for all 10th-grade students was 54 percent.

The numbers are even lower in the Tampa Bay area. Only 7 percent of the 139 10th-grade ELL students in Pinellas earned a passing score on the 2013 FCAT reading exam, compared with 52 percent of 10th-grade students district-wide. In Hillsborough, 10 percent of the 992 10th-grade ELL students passed the reading test, while in Pasco 12 percent of 76 passed. Previous years’ scores tell a similar story.

Fortunately, Florida’s move to American Institute for Research tests won’t leave ELL students in a total bind. Dawson explains:

If the FCAT, or the new AIR test, proves too difficult, students can use the SAT or ACT. Most ELL students find the ACT easier, even though it is timed, Johnson said. While students can take a whole school day to complete the FCAT if they wanted to, it also makes a very long school day and students’ minds tend to wander, he said.

If students don’t pass the tests, they earn a certificate of completion stating they passed their high school course work and can retake the FCAT, SAT or the ACT until they pass it. However, if the student qualifies for free or reduced lunch, which most ELL students do, they can only get an ACT waiver for their first two tries. After that, they have to pay the $35 testing fee, and ELL students have a historically high dropout rate.

Don’t these accommodations demonstrate the folly of  high-stakes testing? And what about costs? Countless Florida high school graduates have struggled with passing a terribly flawed FCAT only to pass the ACT or SAT. Why not just have students mandate those tests instead? Or since the republican legislature is all about choice – parents know best after all – let parents choose which tests their kids take. Even let them take the same tests that voucher kids have to take.

No good, huh?

These uneven and convoluted high-stakes testing mandates which have been imposed by Florida republican legislators no longer pass a smell tests. Listening to guys like Senate President Don Gaetz – a former school board member and school superintendent – explain how different tests for voucher students and public school students are just swell is embarrassing.

Are the realities of what ELL learners are facing contributing to Rick Scott’s delay in signing SB 850? The bill will permanently establish an unequal high-stakes testing regime for public and private voucher schools. Has Scott been persuaded by voices like Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg’s who effectively wrote of Florida’s voucher system’s flaws with English Language Learners?

Tragically for Florida, the answer is no. Scott wants complete privatization of education and cares not even a smidgen about SB 850’s permanent establishment of an unequal accountability system. But Scott will be facing voters in six months and his likely opponent in Charlie Crist will use whatever decision he makes on SB 850 to hammer him.

Scott’s handlers know that SB 850 isn’t the winner with Floridians it is in the republican cloak room in Tallahassee. His political handlers may have even preferred that he not see it on his desk this year. It’s curious that they haven’t attempted to get Crist’s position  on the record. Nonetheless, look for Scott’s decision on SB 85o to happen on a Friday when Team Crist won’t be able to deploy a rapid response. But make no mistake, Crist, who has proved to be the ultimate political opportunist, is relishing the chance to take the contrarian view on vouchers.




About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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