Remembering FCAT, 1995-2014
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is dying, say Florida education officials. By this time next year, the FCAT will be replaced with a new, Common Core-aligned assessment.
FCAT was born in 1995 in the humid June of a Tallahassee summer.
The Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability under Gov. Lawton Chiles gave birth to the test. It was part of a series of recommendations that were meant to give local districts more control and a better sense of how their schools were doing.
“At some point we may look fondly at the FCAT and wish we had it back,” says Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association — the umbrella organization for Florida’s teachers unions.
Eventually, Ford and the FEA would become outspoken rivals of FCAT, but the relationship didn’t sour immediately.
“It gave me information as a classroom teacher,” recalls Ford. “Unfortunately it was used as a political football to be the decision-maker for every decision that anybody wanted to tie to a test.”
RISE TO POWER
From the beginning, FCAT and its twin, the Sunshine State Standards, were inseparable.
The standards determined what Florida schoolchildren should know by the end of the year and FCAT was there to test them on it.
But the turning point in FCAT’s rise to power came in 1999, when Governor Jeb Bush tied the FCAT scores to school grades. In short order, the grades were factored into funding, student advancement and whether a school required intervention.
“At least among reformers around the country, Florida gets a lot of credit for it,” says Sandy Kress who was one of the architects of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.
Kress says Florida’s A-F school grade innovation was influential on a national level.
“What we were trying to do really was to take these ideas that were pioneered in these early states and conform federal policy to them,” says Kress.
But as FCAT’s influence grew, so did its opponents.
“At the time you really felt threatened if you didn’t buy into the old FCAT business — it was like you were being disloyal,” says ReLeah Cossett Lent, who was part of the early chorus of FCAT opponents. She taught English in Bay County, Fla., and became a leader in the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform.
Because of her fight with FCAT, Lent went on to become a full-time education consultant and activist. She’s written nine books about literacy, censorship and testing issues.
When she first received FCAT prep booklets at her classroom, Lent was horrified by the content.
“Long, boring passages with all of these multiple-choice questions,” she recalls. “So I just took them all and put them in my closet. And my closet in my room was just full from bottom to top of all these test booklets.”
FCAT’s relationship with students was also complicated.
Ryan Pham — who graduated in 2008 and is now working in marketing in Atlanta — didn’t love FCAT, but he did share a serendipitous moment with it once, in elementary school at the North Dade Center for Modern Languages.
“I was a pretty big reader, my mom was an English teacher,” says Pham. The Boxcar Children stories were some of his favorite in elementary school. So when he got his FCAT test, he remembers being excited to find them there.
“I remember opening the test using my No. 2 pencil to break the seal, and just feeling a sense of excitement about reading this box car kids passage,” says Pham.
But for Brian Vaughn, a senior at Spruce Creek High school in Port Orange, the most indelible interaction with FCAT was his last. Vaughn had been up all night working on an English paper before taking his 10th grade FCAT on a computer. He finished, fell asleep, and woke up in an empty room an hour-and-a-half later.
“With my head on the desk and half of the lights were on, and the proctor was gone,” remembers Vaughn.
He passed, but that interaction with FCAT became a metaphor.
“We let our students fall asleep in boring environments with high-stakes testing,” he says.
Even though FCAT came into this world before he was governor, Jeb Bush is widely viewed as its surrogate father — the man who helped FCAT ascend to power.
When StateImpact Florida spoke to Bush a year-and-a-half ago, it was clear that FCAT was on its way out. Bush seemed sanguine about FCAT’s departure, knowing that it would be survived by a new assessment:
“The FCAT -- the dreaded FCAT that gives all children acne and makes then nauseous during the testing period -- it will be replaced with a new test that will measure competency based on new standards,” said Bush.
But a replacement for FCAT wasn’t chosen until this spring. The non-profit American Institutes for Research was chosen to design the new test. It’s still in development, which is a huge concern for teachers and superintendents.
“With the death of the FCAT, it’s almost one of those, ‘I didn’t like you but I miss you' [things] -- almost. Because what’s about to come may not be as clear as what the FCAT was,” says Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Students and teachers will be paying their respects to FCAT one last time through May 2.