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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)

In Texas, an inspector general is investigating possible cheating and other testing irregularities at almost 700 schools.

While many past education debates have dissolved into intangible issues of school finance, the testing critics believe that the issue may sway larger numbers of voters because the tests are having such pronounced and immediate effects on children.

"We have third-grade children who have been retained so many times they are wearing brassieres in the third grade," said Florida state Sen. Frederica Wilson, one of the leaders of the anti-testing movement here.

"When parents are dealing with children vomiting on the morning of the tests and seeing other signs of test stress, they're going to be motivated at the voting booth," said Gloria Pipkin, the president of a testing watchdog group, the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform. "Texas and Florida are the poster children for excessive testing, and we're seeing an enormous backlash."

Polls are also registering growing voter discontent over tests.

A Zogby International poll for the Miami Herald last month showed that 61 percent of voters disagreed with grading and funding schools based on their test scores, and almost half said schools were allocating too much time for test preparation. A poll by the Florida Times-Union and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel showed similar results.

In Texas, a survey drafted by two polling firms, one Democratic and one Republican, and paid for by the Texas State Teachers Association, indicated that 56 percent of voters thought there was too much emphasis on state testing in their schools.

A national poll by a pro-testing group, the Teaching Commission, showed that 52 percent of respondents thought that standardized tests do not accurately measure student achievement; 35 percent thought they do.

"Our kids should be leading the world, and they're not going to get there by filling in little ovals all day long," Chris Bell, the Democratic challenger for Texas governor, says in a television ad.

Gov. Rick Perry, however, is sticking to the program.

"I won't dismiss the idea that there are a lot of folks out there -- maybe a large number -- who don't like testing," said Robert Black, a spokesman for Perry. "But the governor has never been one to follow polls. If you want to hold schools accountable and make sure they are learning, you have to test."

Opposition to the tests has been building over several years.

At first, Wilson said, opposition was considered a "minority issue" because many of the students being held back in third grade or denied diplomas were African American or Hispanic. But with children in many schools taking on more homework and rote drills, she said, enough parents have complained that the candidates "could see that the FCAT was devastating Florida families."

Crist, who as Florida education commissioner supported the pro-testing agenda of the Bush administration, began the race offering to move ahead with the program. But more recently, noting that the test has become "a pejorative," he has indicated that his position on testing is more flexible.

The polls aside, Crist sees support for the FCAT.

"Residents across the state have said that the FCAT is making a difference," according to Erin Isaac, deputy press secretary for the Crist campaign, in response to e-mailed questions. "Charlie Crist believes that if we don't measure every student's progress every year, we don't care."

His opponent expressed a different view. "Parents in this state are outraged," Davis said Saturday. "They're seeing the rote drills and the pressure. But they're not seeing their children learn."

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