Unlike the private schools in Florida, which are not held to any accountability or performance standards, the state’s public school performance is carefully scrutinized each year, by both the state (under the A+ Plan) and the federal government (under No Child Left Behind.) In Florida, public schools and students are annually evaluated on their performance and are routinely sanctioned for not demonstrating adequate progress. Public schools that fail to meet state expectations lose students (who are allowed to transfer to better performing public and private schools) and consequently, funding.
During his first term in office, Governor Bush promised to end social promotion and make the Florida school diploma meaningful.44 To this end, he created the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in 1998, a high-stakes test that assesses student achievement in reading, writing, math and science,45 and influences graduation and student promotion.46 In 2003, for the first time, FCAT scores would determine which third-graders would be promoted to the next grade and which school seniors would graduate.47
In 2003, almost 13,000 high school seniors and an estimated 43,000 third-graders failed to pass the FCAT statewide.48 Many of the third-graders were slated to be held back for an additional year. However, school districts may promote some students who passed an alternative test such as the Stanford 9, participated in a summer reading camp, or showed reading proficiency through class work.49 Critics remain worried that only a few students are taking advantage of these alternatives.50
Critics are also concerned that the FCAT unfairly judges a student’s performance and bases his or her future on just one test. State Senator Ron Klein (D-Delray Beach) explains: “We’re all for accountability in education. But there’s something wrong when a high school honor roll student can’t graduate (because of a bad FCAT score) or a third-grader can’t advance to the fourth grade because of just one computerized test.”51 Other critics are afraid that the tests are racially biased.52 Concerned that the majority of seniors and third-graders failing the FCAT are Black, State Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Miami) asks: “what happens to the large numbers of Black children who are failing this test at an alarming rate and missing their chance to go to college”?53
Governor Jeb Bush has declared that his A+ plan is a rousing success, claiming that standardized tests and consequences for failure have dramatically improved Florida’s classrooms.54 However, the Bush administration paints a rosy, and sometimes selective, picture when it comes to educational achievement. His administration claims that according to the most recent FCAT scores, 60 percent of fourth-graders are proficient readers. But according to the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, only 32 percent of Florida’s fourth-graders are proficient readers.55 Similarly, last year, when boasting about the FCAT’s success, Bush failed to mention that the test scores of more than 18,000 minority students were not included in the analysis of student achievement. As a result, test results were skewed, showing a higher level of student achievement. When scores of all students were included, results showed that 50 percent of Black students and 41 percent of Hispanic students scored at the lowest level.56
In Florida, education remains a very political issue. Charles Garcia, a Florida Board of Education member appointed by Jeb Bush, admits that while the state board was created to take politics out of education, the board is politically motivated. In November 2003, Garcia was the lone voice on the Board who favored raising FCAT passing scores so that schools would continually strive for higher grades, as was intended by the A+ Plan. The rest of the board members disagreed, voting to keep the current standards, and thereby, according to Garcia, weakening the exam. The board members’ vote would, in effect, guarantee that more schools get an A-grade during a year that George W. Bush is up for the presidential reelection.57
Florida officials recently boasted that graduation has also steadily increased under the A+ Plan. The state claims a 68 percent graduation rate for students after four years of high school. Jim Horne proclaimed: “That Florida has seen such a significant increase in high school graduation in only four years is a testament to the fact that high standards, measurement and accountability add up to dramatically improved student achievement….” In truth, Florida ranks among the bottom in graduating its students. According to research conducted by the conservative Manhattan Institute, Florida graduated only 56 percent of its students in 2001, compared to the national average of 70 percent. The disparity in data is attributed to the fact that Florida counts students who opt to take the General Education Development (GED) as graduates, which skews graduation rates. Even the U.S. Department of Education relies on enrollment data and traditional diploma counts, excluding GED recipients as graduates from high school.58
Grading schools and vouchers are the bedrock of Governor Bush’s education plan. Under the A+ Plan, if a public school has been labeled as failing for two of four consecutive years, students from that school may take a voucher to attend a better performing public or private school.59 A spokesperson from the state Department of Education explains that “if a school is failing, the students that happen to be there ought not be doomed to attending that school for the rest of the academic year.” 60 But this theory fails to consider the consequences to the schools and students that are left behind. While the Department spokesperson contends that Bush’s plan was not intended to shut down low-performing schools, that is exactly what is happening. Floral Heights Elementary School in Miami-Dade county will close after more than 45 years due to a failing grade and hence, dwindling enrollment and funding. According to a Miami Herald analysis, the 28 Miami-Dade elementary schools that have received “F” grades face losing students and funding. Ironically, these schools are in districts where classroom overcrowding is a chronic problem.61 Like Floral Heights, these other elementary schools may also close their doors if enrollment and funding loses severely impact their ability to effectively teach the students that remain. Rather than throwing vast amounts of money after voucher programs, the state should instead focus on poorly performing public schools, giving them the support and resources they need to turn around and better serve their student population.
Furthermore, Bush’s accountability plan financially rewards schools and staff for strong test scores, and penalizes for low performance. Unfortunately, this reward and sanction system has given rise to cut-throat education practices that do not educate all children, as is the obligation of public schools everywhere and the intent of the federal NCLB. In Miami-Dade, an elementary school principal recently wrote a memo to homeroom teachers instructing them to identify students who might be dragging down the school’s FCAT scores—such as those who live outside the school’s attendance area, are chronically tardy or absent, have behavioral problems, are inattentive, and who do not finish class and home work assignments. In a separate note, the principal explains: “These are the kids we’ve got to get ‘outta here’ if they are low on the FCAT!” 62
In Florida, the harsh consequences of failure impact the very institutions that Jeb Bush claims to be helping. As more and more schools are labeled as failing, some students will “escape” to private and religious schools that are not held to any academic standards or accountability while public schools will be forced to shut down due to low student enrollment and funding. High-stakes testing will result in more students being held back, fewer students graduating from high school, more students dropping out (because of an inability to pass the FCAT), and eventually fewer students applying to and attending college. As State Senator Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami) puts it, the state’s high-stakes tests “are doing more harm than good in an effort to ‘leave no child behind.’”63