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When will we take American education seriously?

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted May 19, 2003

In case you haven't heard, some Florida public school students are mighty angry. No, they're not upset with inedible hamburgers in the school cafeteria or a canceled senior prom. They're objecting to the fact that the state is holding them accountable for what they've learned in 13 years of schooling.

This year Florida students are required to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), one of a battery of exams that are administered to all public school students from grades 3-10 in a variety of subjects, in order to receive their high school diploma.

The problem, however, is that some 13,000 high school seniors failed to pass the FCAT this year and are now in jeopardy of not being allowed to graduate this spring. Using their universal right to dispute anything that isn't automatically handed to them or immediately gratifying, about 200 students from Miami Senior High School organized a rally on Thursday, May 8th, to protest this requirement, holding signs with witty FCAT acronym definitions like "Forget College After This."

While we should probably congratulate these seniors for caring enough about their education to worry about a future in college, one is left to postulate that the future may not be too bright anyhow for many of those who failed the test; students only need the relative equivalent of a 40 per cent to pass the FCAT and they are allowed to take it up to six (!) times.

Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly debated this requirement recently with Dr. Brad Brown, Miami Dade NAACP chapter president. Mr. O'Reilly argued that 90 per cent of Florida's seniors have passed the FCAT, and that this is simply an attempt by the state to impose more measurable standards upon its students to ensure that they will be able to compete in society after high school. Dr. Brown disagreed, stating that it is unfair to refuse any student a high school diploma based on the outcome of one exam.

Of course, both men were correct in their respective arguments. But they also both missed the bigger, and much more important, picture.

Overnight ideas, such as high school exit exams, are nothing new. Education reformers have tried desperately to prove to the public that standards in America's schools are not disastrously low. Several years ago, Virginia required its students to pass a state exam in order to retain its accreditation. When 93 per cent of all students failed to pass, the requirement was waived.

Similarly, the new FCAT prerequisite in Florida was imposed not for its validity in indicating the potential success of its graduates, but to give the impression that the majority of Florida's high schoolers are receiving an adequate education, when in fact the direct opposite is likely true.

An exit exam that requires students to demonstrate knowledge of only 40 per cent of material is bunk to begin with. This so-called standard is consistent with the continual dumbing down of curriculum that our nation's schools have been subject to for the past three decades; if students refuse to rise to the level required to achieve, we'll lower the bar to make it look as if they have.

Florida educrats can argue that students who don't pass the FCAT shouldn't receive a diploma, and they would probably be correct. But what is more bothersome is the number of students who will be allowed to do nothing academically in school all year and still pass the exam handily simply because of its cushy "passing" rate.

Interestingly enough, the 13,000 students who today are in danger of not graduating would be about one thousand greater if the state hadn't already lowered the score needed to pass. This fact in itself underscores the ineffectiveness of using exit exams. What more would it tell us about the quality of education in Florida if 100 per cent of its students passed the FCAT, if the score required to pass was a mere 10 per cent?

We are in dire need of a serious discussion in this country about the importance of public education, what our children actually need to be taught, and the extent to which quality instruction currently exists. Schools need to increase everyday standards for classroom attendance, behavior, homework completion, and academic participation and cooperation. And consequences for not meeting these standards also need to be increased and enforced.

Failing to hold students accountable for inappropriate behavior and unproductive academic performance is a recipe for lowering standards to the point where individuals no longer believe that the rules apply to them. Those who would disagree can reference the Miami high school seniors who spent more time complaining about educational requirements they are expected to follow instead of attending classes and figuring out how to pass the FCAT in the first place.

Once we focus more on instilling academic values in our students instead of worrying about bruising their egos, damaging their self-esteem or stifling their voice, our schools will finally begin to recover the ground lost to the specter of low expectations. Doing so will do more to indicate increased standards than any exit exam ever could.

Trevor Bothwell is editor of The Right Report. He can be contacted at bothwell@therightreport.com.

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