TOPICS > Education

Report Card, FCAT

June 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the second report in a new series of ours on education issues affecting students from grade school to college. Last night’s was on the impact the federal “no child left behind” legislation has had on teaching reading in Michigan. Well, tonight, we look at standardized tests required for high school graduation. Tom Bearden reports from Florida.

TOM BEARDEN: Instead of going to college this summer, 18-year-old Juan Guerrero may have to keep working at a fast-food restaurant in Miami Beach. The high school senior repeatedly failed Florida’s comprehensive assessment test, or FCAT, and won’t get his diploma as a result. Even though he’s had two jobs throughout high school to help support his family, Guerrero says he’s also worked hard to maintain passing grades. He was even admitted to a summer computer program at Florida State University.

JUAN GUERERRO, High School Senior: And I didn’t go because of the FCAT. You know, that’s what’s holding me back to achieve my real goal to become a computer programmer, and then become a Web designer, and have at least some – earn some degrees so I can make more money in life, so my children don’t have to suffer the way I did, because my mom is suffering truly a lot while I’m going through, and I’m trying to help her out. That’s why I’ve got two jobs.

TOM BEARDEN: Guerrero is one of some 13,000 Florida high school seniors who will not receive diplomas because they failed the state’s standardized assessment test. Like Guerrero, over half the students met all the other requirements for graduation. The state has been administering the tenth grade level test for four years, but this is the first class that’s required to pass it in order to graduate. Florida’s education commissioner, Jim Horne, says the test is necessary.

JIM HORNE, Florida Commissioner of Education: We need to stick to our guns here. We need to make sure that we don’t lower standards. But we need to make sure that we help these children who are struggling. We need to make sure that they’re equipped with the skills, because that’s really the only way you can pursue your dreams, not simply lowering standards and giving someone a piece of paper.

TOM BEARDEN: The test results have caused an uproar at Miami Senior High. Students have staged a series of walk-outs in protest.

TEACHER: Why were you having a demonstration?

TOM BEARDEN: Teachers have been trying to deal with the issue in class.

TEACHER: How many of you were out there? Okay. And why were you out there?

JEANETTE GARCIA, High School Senior: Because we failed the FCAT, and we thought it was, you know, a wrongdoing that we’ve been in school for so long, and we have the grades and we have the GPA and all that, and we go in class, and some of us do work our butt off, and then, you know, all that comes down to a test.

TOM BEARDEN: Ralph Arza teaches government, and is also a representative in the Florida state legislature, where a majority of lawmakers support the FCAT.

RALPH ARZA, Florida State Representative/Teacher: Why do you think that people, legislators, people like myself, would pass a law to make sure that you have to take this test? Why would they do that?

ELISA BARRIOS, High School Senior: Government needs to know if teachers are doing the right job, and they need to know if students are actually learning, so that’s why they actually passed the FCAT.

RALPH ARZA: Now, let me ask you an honest question.

TOM BEARDEN: Representative Arza says the FCAT is valuable not only because it tests individuals, but because student scores are used to grade the schools themselves.

RALPH ARZA: For the first time in Florida, there is a standard. We didn’t have one before, and that standard is, that when you get a diploma, it will have value, and it will put Florida in a competitive position to attract major businesses. Why don’t businesses come to the city of Miami, the poorest city in America? Why? Because 50 percent of the “f” schools in the state of Florida are right here in Miami. This school, the one that I teach at, has been a “d” school for four years. What happens to these kids when they go out into the workforce?

LLOYD BALLARD, Teacher: I think what the state wants to do, they want to make sure that you’re at a certain level of competency.

TOM BEARDEN: Lloyd Ballard also teaches at Miami Senior High. He runs the role model mentoring program, aimed at keeping at- risk boys like Juan Guerrero from dropping out of school. He believes the FCAT doesn’t take the challenges facing inner-city teachers into account.

LLOYD BALLARD: I do feel that some kids, especially kids in the inner city, many of our students, they’re from some desperate situations. Their home backgrounds, oftentimes there’s only one parent. Books aren’t in the homes to be read, and even if they are, some of the parents don’t stress reading to them, which isn’t the school’s fault. But it’s a reality that we in the school system, we as teachers, have to deal with.


TOM BEARDEN: Civil rights leaders in South Florida complain that a disproportionate number of poor and minority children failed the FCAT, and they’ve called for a boycott of some of Florida’s largest industries, like tourism and citrus, until the governor suspends the exam as a requirement for graduation. State Senator Frederica Wilson says the FCAT is unfairly punishing children for the state’s failure to educate them.

FREDERICA WILSON: The FCAT was supposed to be used to assess the children, find out where their weaknesses, and then remediate those weaknesses! It was not supposed to be an instrument to put pain, suffering, and punitive damages in the lives of our children.

TOM BEARDEN: Senator Wilson, who was also an elementary school principal, says the state needs to spend more money on education if it wants to raise standards.

FREDERICA WILSON: Florida was not ready, because Florida ranks 47th in spending on each pupil in schools. We’re next to Mississippi.

JIM HORNE: There will never be enough money. There will never be enough money to satisfy the appetite of the education community. We need to make sure that we invest wisely, and we’re trying to get a good return for that investment. We’ve got to make sure that we bring the resources and bring the right kinds of programs, require changes in leadership if necessary, require changes in instructional practices if necessary. We’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure every child is equipped with the skills to succeed, not lower the standards.

RALPH ARZA: Should your whole high school career come down to one test?

TOM BEARDEN: The Florida state Senate is expected to debate new legislation that would allow otherwise qualified high school seniors who failed the FCAT but performed well on college entrance exams to graduate. The vote will likely take place during a special session on June 16, three days after graduation at Miami Senior High.