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Political Backlash Builds Over High-Stakes Testing

"We're going to stop using the FCAT to punish children, teachers and schools," Florida gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis said Saturday. (By J. Pat Carter -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

LAUDERHILL, Fla. -- School exams may be detested by students everywhere, but in this state at the forefront of the testing and accountability movement in the United States, the backlash against them has become far broader, and politically potent.

The role of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, has become central to the race to succeed Gov. Jeb Bush (R), with polls showing a growing discontent over the exams, which he has championed and which are used to determine many aspects of the school system, including teacher pay, budgets and who flunks third grade.

Republican Charlie Crist is offering to push forward with the testing regime, but Democrat Jim Davis has condemned what he calls its "punitive" nature, arguing that exam pressures have transformed schools into "dreary test-taking factories."

"Couple years ago one of my sons brought this quiz home, and the first question was 'What does the FCAT stand for?' " Davis told a meeting of clergy here Saturday. "I won't repeat to you what I said because I used words I'm teaching my boys not to use. . . . We're going to stop using the FCAT to punish children, teachers and schools."

This election season may be the first in which the growing use of high-stakes school testing, embodied in the No Child Left Behind legislation, has reached this level of political prominence.

A similar exam revolt has become a key issue in the race for governor in Texas, another state in the vanguard of the testing movement, and the issue has roiled the Ohio gubernatorial contest as well.

High-stakes testing -- using standardized test scores to impose consequences affecting teachers and students -- has been embraced widely in recent years as a way to hold educators and students accountable for their performance. Experts say the movement is one of the most significant shifts in U.S. education in decades.

Texas and Florida were among the states that adopted high-stakes testing early, and each has pushed its program beyond what is required in No Child Left Behind.

Advocates say that under the pressure of the exams, students in Florida, Texas and elsewhere have shown significant improvements. The testing systems include the public release of schools' results and test-based financial incentives for educators, and determine which third-graders can be promoted and which high school students can graduate.

But teachers unions and some parents groups have argued that an overemphasis on the tests has reduced education to rote drills and needlessly heightened stresses on elementary students, and that the reported test gains have been illusory, overstated or short-lived.

Many opponents say they do not object to the testing but to the high stakes attached to the results, which they say force schools to develop a myopic curriculum focused on the test.

In Florida, as many as 14 percent of 200,000 public school third-graders in some years have been held back, most for failing to make an adequate score on the reading test.


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