RIP FCAT, The Florida Test With A Chorus Of Detractors

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, is being replaced by a test aligned to the Common Core State Standards. StateImpact Florida's Sammy Mack remembers FCAT and its controversial run.

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A remembrance now for another test that is not here to stay, one that has touched the lives of millions of students in Florida. Its name is FCAT. That's short for Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. For the next few weeks, kids across the state will sit down with FCAT one last time and say their goodbyes. Like many state exams, it will be replaced next year by a test aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. From member station WLRN in Miami, Sammy Mack has this look back at FCAT's controversial run.

SAMMY MACK, BYLINE: FCAT was born in 1995 in the humid June of a Tallahassee summer. The idea was schools would get more say in how they spent state money, but in return, students had to take the FCAT. If they didn't do well, schools were held accountable.

ANDY FORD: They gave me information as a classroom teacher.

MACK: Information about what his students already knew and what they still needed to learn, says former elementary school teacher Andy Ford. Today, Ford overseas Florida's teachers union, and he's now an outspoken critic of FCAT.

FORD: Unfortunately, it was used as a political football to be the decision maker for every decision that anybody ever wanted to tie to a test we did.

MACK: FCAT came into this world before Jeb Bush was governor, but he's widely viewed as its surrogate father. FCAT ascended to power on his watch. In 1999, Bush began using FCAT scores to grade schools. The stakes were high. Kids who did badly could be held back. Schools that did badly could lose funding or even face a state intervention.

RELEAH COSSETT LENT: At the time, you really felt threatened if you didn't buy into the old FCAT business. It was almost like you were being disloyal.

MACK: ReLeah Cossett Lent was part of the early chorus of FCAT opponents. When the test started, she was teaching English in Bay County, Florida. She remembers when FCAT practice tests were first delivered to her classroom.

LENT: You opened them up and it's just horrible, just long, boring passages with all of these multiple-choice questions. And 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 because I didn't use them.

MACK: FCAT's relationship with students was complicated. Ryan Pham graduated in 2008 and is now working in marketing in Atlanta. He didn't love FCAT, but they did share a moment once, in elementary school in Opa-locka, over the reading comprehension section.

RYAN PHAM: I loved the Boxcar kids, and I remember opening the test. I'm using my No. 2 pencil to break the seal and just feeling a sense of excitement about reading this Boxcar kids passage.

MACK: A couple of years ago, Brian Vaughn, a student at Spruce Creek High school in Port Orange, had been up all night working on an English paper. The next day, he had to take his 10th grade FCAT. He finished early and fell asleep.

BRIAN VAUGHN: An hour and a half later, I woke up to an empty room, like with my head on the desk and half of the lights were on, and the proctor was gone.

MACK: Vaughn passed. He's a senior now. But that experience, he says, captures a big problem with Florida's education system.

VAUGHN: We kind of let our students fall asleep in boring environments with high-stakes testing.

MACK: FCAT will be survived by a new test, one for the Common Core standards. But that one is not ready yet, which is a huge concern for teachers and superintendents, like Miami-Dade's Alberto Carvalho.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: With the death of the FCAT, it's almost one of those, you know, I didn't like you but I miss you almost because what's about to come may not be as clear as what the FCAT was.

MACK: Students and their teachers will be paying their respects to the test one last time through May 2nd. FCAT was 19 years old. For NPR News, I'm Sammy Mack in Miami.

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