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And the Devil Takes the Hindmost

Monday, 02 June 2003 12:00 AM

Whenever the subject of failing schools and poor student performance is raised, excuse mongerers and finger-pointers invariably come out of the woodwork.

Those who profess to have “studied” the issue usually make orotund pronouncements citing large class size, inadequate facilities, crumbling buildings, low teacher salaries or inequitable distribution of per pupil spending from district to district as reasons for the miserable test scores.

A new wrinkle has been added to this list of canards: discriminatory testing. Witness the current flap in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush has once again become the focus of race-based public demonstrations dealing with the state’s education policy.

Bush took a lot of heat from minorities in 1999 when he rolled back affirmative action, a move that sparked mass protests in the state capitol.

Now the protesters are at it again, this time a group of about 2,500 gathered at Bush’s Miami offices on May 22, threatening a boycott of Florida orange juice, sugar, the state lottery, theme parks and the Florida Turnpike toll road, unless the governor rescinds the rules of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

One of the protest leaders, Bishop Victor T. Curry, said on National Public Radio: “This ain’t a black thing. This is our children’s thing. We ain't going to drink no Florida orange juice or citrus.”

Instituted in 1998, the FCAT is a statewide standardized test that measures student performance in reading, writing, math and science. Two versions of the test are given, one to third-graders and the other to 12th-graders. Beginning this year, third-grade students who fail cannot enter the fourth grade, while 12th-grade failures cannot receive a high school diploma.

Students may pass the test with a grade of only 40 points, and those who fail may take the test over, up to five times.

Statewide, more than 43,000 third-graders and an estimated 12,500 12th-graders didn't pass this year, and protesters have said that an unfair percentage of those are minorities. Still, some can earn promotions or diplomas by turning to summer reading camps for third-graders or adult-education courses and an accelerated GED for seniors.

In spite of the apparent overall success of the FCAT in raising student test scores across the board, organized minorities like the Democratic Black Caucus of Miami argue that the test should only be “evaluative” of student performance, not a determining factor for graduation.

They claim that simply trying should be enough for black and Hispanic kids. "I'm hoping the governor will realize," State Sen. Frederica Wilson said, "that it's hard enough being black in America today."

Yet since its inception, state department of education scores show that FCAT has resulted in a jump from 23 percent to 41 percent of African-Americans being able to read at or above grade level; Hispanics improved from 38 percent to 51 percent.

For his part, Gov. Bush strenuously supports the test, noting that if standards were lowered to accommodate minorities, it would amount to “giving in to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Instead of boycotting,” he said, "people should be celebrating.”

But now that the issue has become politicized, Bush is showing signs of backpedaling: he is now calling for a special session of the state legislature to vote on allowing students who failed the FCAT this year but performed well on college entrance exams to be awarded a high school diploma.

His glib explanation is that “this is just another effort, without lowering standards, to provide assurances that we're not trying to limit access to higher education.”

It is a sign of our debased times that when poor performance is the issue, excuses abound. Rather than playing the race card for the umpteenth time, how many minority parents have asked themselves why their child couldn’t pass the test, which evaluates no more than basic skills? How many of these parents can honestly say that they have been actively involved in their child’s academic endeavors?

If high school diplomas are to mean anything, then minimal standards must be established and adhered to. As poor as some schools may be, not being able to pass a minimum competency test after 12 years of public education, I believe, is the fault of the students and their parents, not the teachers.

We must create the ethos that children must rise to the level where we want them to be, and not simply lower the bar to accommodate 12 years of goofing off.

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Whenever the subject of failing schools and poor student performance is raised, excuse mongerers and finger-pointers invariably come out of the woodwork. Those who profess to have "studied" the issue usually make orotund pronouncements citing large class size, inadequate...
And,the,Devil,Takes,the,Hindmost
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2003-00-02
Monday, 02 June 2003 12:00 AM
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