FCAT: Does It Make the Grade?
By KRISTEN STERNBERG | NIE Educational Consultant
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) began in 1998 for students in grades 4, 5, 8 and 10. Now expanded to include all grades from 3-10, this year most elementary, middle and high school students in the state will go face-to-face with the FCAT. The exam scores will be put to work in a variety of ways. The FCAT is designed to test students' skills in reading, writing and math. One important reason for the exam is to identify people who are not meeting educational standards for their grade level, so they can get extra help with their lessons.
(Editorial cartoon: News-Journal/Bruce Beattie)
The exam results will also be averaged to represent how a class rated against others at a grade level. They'll be merged with the rest of the scores for the school, too, and the school will receive a grade based primarily on that figure. Another result is that teachers and school principals may be held accountable for their students' test scores. A student's failure to do well on an exam is sometimes interpreted as a failure on the part of the teacher because the required material wasn't covered in enough detail.
If results are used for all these reasons, and students and institutions benefit from knowing where students, teachers and principals, classrooms and schools stand on test scores, then why are many people opposed to it? One reason is that the exam is not very old, and it's in the process of being refined. This process can be confusing, as changes are made to the exam and how it's scored. A local newspaper columnist recently expressed his view about this issue by using a metaphor to get his point across: Read how the FCAT can be compared to a football game!
Other FCAT opponents feel schools are "teaching to the test." They say that a result of the required testing means students are only taught material that might appear on exams, rather than learning life skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and so on. They maintain that student projects, research and discussion, labs and even field trips are sacrificed because there's not enough time to teach these skills anymore. They also believe schools should concentrate on a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking, even if it means lower test scores. The reality is, though, that laws have been passed to require students in every state to take math and reading tests in at least two grades, indicating a trend in emphasizing such test scores.
Some kids feel more stress about taking tests than others do. If you know someone who suffers from test anxiety, here are some tips that might help. Find and use special study aids to increase knowledge of test taking skills. Confer with a teacher and other adults for tips on how to control anxiety. It also helps to improve a person's confidence at the same time. Probably the most important thing that can be done to improve scores on the FCAT and on similar tests is to read. Reading books, magazines and newspapers has been proven to help students with vocabulary, grammar and other reading and writing skills. Check out the newspaper activities and Web links provided below, too. They're all about reinforcing important academic skills like those tested on the FCAT.
Try these interesting activities using The News-Journal
- Newspaper articles frequently use numbers to inform and illustrate concepts to readers. In the newspaper, find ten numerals greater than 1 but less than 1000. Make a list of the numbers you found, and next to each write its Roman Numeral equivalent. (Sunshine State Standards: MA.A.2.2.2)
FCAT scores compared
- Using your list of numerals, find the following: Mean, Median and Mode, terms often used in reporting test scores. (Sunshine State Standards: MA.E.1.2.2)
- Predicting is a very important skill and can help improve test scores. Over a period of several weeks, turn to your newspaper's Weather page as often as possible. Find the times listed for sunrise and sunset, and keep a table or chart of your findings. Once you see a pattern or trend, predict the sunrise and sunset times for the coming week. How accurate were your predictions? (Sunshine State Standards: MA.D.1.2.1, MA.D.1.2.2, MA.E.1.2.1, SE.C.1.2.1)
- Choose a newspaper article of interest to you and identify whether the author used any of the following literary devices: Symbolism, Simile, Alliteration. This activity will help sharpen critical thinking skills and ultimately improve test scores. (Sunshine State Standards: LA.D.2.2.2, LA.E.1.2.5)
- Being able to communicate effectively is an important test-taking skill. Practice it with the following activity. From an illustration you find in the newspaper, find one or more geometric figures (square, triangle, circle, etc.). Prepare a written description of each figure you chose. Ask a willing classmate or adult to draw the figure based upon your written description. How did you both do? (Sunshine State Standards: MA.C.1.2.1)
A copy of Florida's Sunshine State Standards can be found at intech2000.miamisci.org.
Check out these links to learn more
The Florida Department of Education has an official Web site to answer questions about the FCAT. Download a video (If you are a student, make sure to get permission first!), take a look at FCAT scores, and get a head start on test-taking by solving the sample reading and math problems provided. For other sample problems, try this interactive site, where you can find out right away how you did.
Practicing reading and math skills might seem more like fun than like work if you follow the link to this site, where practice problems have names like "Cookie Dough" and "Math Car Racing". Be sure to choose questions from your appropriate grade level.
A glossary of FCAT terms, sample test items and articles expressing both sides of the testing issue are just a sample of what you'll find at About.com's FCAT site. For easy-to-understand tips on taking the exam, visit this Web learning zone site. Then, follow links to some interesting articles about FCAT issues like the ones discussed earlier.
The Newspaper Association of America's web site contains links to many newspapers in the U.S. and around the world. Visit the site and check some of them out, to see if they have recently published any articles on this topic. To access the newspapers at the site, select a state. Click on the "Internationals" button to view choices from other countries.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal NIE Program, published September 3, 2001