Welcome to FCAT week! The Florida story on why testing matters

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Remember those required college courses where you could take the “same” class from any number of different professors? I was in one of those, a lower-level course on American government that had multiple sections. The course was a prerequisite for a number of other classes I wanted to take.

My instructor wasn’t easy. He expected a lot. Friends in different sections of the course had a lot less to read, write, and do. But the next semester when we all moved on to a higher-level course, it was clear that my cohort had been given a far better deal. Compared to those who came from a lower-expectation intro class, my cohort excelled. We were ready for the material.

To me, this was a great lesson and is now an excellent example of why testing matters.

Two sections of the same course are supposed to be equally prepared for the next level. Likewise, two 3rd graders are supposed to move onto 4th grade with comparable skills. But without testing, there’s no way to know — or guarantee — this to be the case. Without testing, we disadvantage random groups of kids for having had less skilled, or more inexperienced, teachers.

Despite grumblings, politically-motivated fear-mongering, and adult-induced stress on kids, this is why we use tests like the FCAT.

We’re going to hear a lot about the FCAT this week. Even though the FCAT is being phased out, the fact that testing remains, and how it is used, will remain high points in political discussion on education reform.

Here’s the thing: we may disagree on how tests are used to grade teachers or schools, but we shouldn’t forget the purpose of these assessments and their widespread importance. We also can’t deny that this tactic is working.

Take Florida’s student performance gains, for example. Over the past 15 years our students have gone from being among the worst performing across the U.S. to making among the greatest gains in the nation.

The only reason why we are able to know this is that one organization, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gives the same tests to students across the U.S. It is the only representative assessment of what students know and can do in various subject areas. The NAEP reports its findings in the Nation’s Report Card — a publication that has allowed Florida to say with certainty that our formula of higher standards and higher accountability is working. You can see these impressive details for yourself here.

The use of the FCAT has been a piece of Florida’s success story.

As this test is replaced with a new assessment, matched to the implementation of the Florida Standards, we have the opportunity to build an even greater foundation for our students.

If you put me back into that college lecture hall, but by chance with a less motivated professor, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. But the following years would have been a lot harder for me.

But while college students are largely able to make up for such challenges on their own, 4th and 8th graders are not. It is up to parents, teachers, and lawmakers, to ensure that testing and accountability measures remain major tools in the ongoing march of student progress.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.