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Florida Assessment Test: Fair or Biased?

Aired May 13, 2003 - 20:32   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Can you answer the following question? The new moon phase is caused by the relative positions of Earth, the moon and the sun. Why is the moon not visible during the new moon phase?
Is it because, A -- the sun light is not being reflected off the moon, B -- the far side of the moon is the only side visible, or C -- the location of the moon is between Earth and sun, or D -- the tilt of the Earth causes the moon to be blocked by the sun.

Pencils down. Correct answer is C.

On a recent test, almost 13,000 high school seniors in Florida were unable to answer enough questions similar to that one to pass the test, and as John Zarrella reports it may cost them their high school diplomas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mercedes Perciles is a senior at Miami Edison High School. She is class president, carries a 3.8 grade point average and has five scholarship offers.

But like thousands of other high school seniors in Florida, Perciles not get her diploma.

MERCEDES PERICLES: I passed the math. I needed to pass the reading and I didn't pass.

ZARRELLA: Nearly 13,000 out of 19,000 seniors who took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, known as FCAT, failed.

Although the test has been given since 1999, this is the first year seniors were required to pass it in order to graduate. The FCAT results set off student protests...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No FCAT!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No FCAT!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No FCAT!

ZARRELLA: ...and infuriated community leaders and activists who charge having a single test to determine a student's future is unfair. REV. VICTOR CURRY, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: We would like to work cooperatively with Governor Bush, the Florida legislature and the Department of Education to determine the appropriate standard and weight in which to give the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

ZARRELLA: Florida education officials say the 13,000 number is misleading. About 40 percent don't carry the minimum required grade point average or simply don't have enough course credits to graduate.

The other 60 percent state officials say can still go to college next year if they retake and pass the FCAT next month.

But some community leaders say that's not enough. If the state doesn't suspend use of the test, they will begin an economic boycott of the state's sugar, citrus and tourism industries.

REV. RICHARD BENNET, AFRICAN-AMERICA CHRISTIAN CLERGY: We're going to have to stop buying sugar. Let's go buy honey (ph). Instead of going DisneyWorld, let's go Atlanta, Georgia to Six Flags. You know, make the governor feel the pinch economically.

ZARRELLA: The governor says the test is an accurate barometer for measuring student progress.

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: It's going to be the catalyst, as it has been, for rising student achievement.

ZARRELLA: But opponents say it highlights how Florida has historically lagged behind in educating its children.

John Zarrella, CNN, Miami.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, like it or not, politically correct or not, every high school graduate gets tested eventually by the real world. High school is supposed to prepare them for that test. The question now is whether Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Test does that.

Fredrica Wilson is a Florida state senator calling for the boycott. In Orlando, we have Julia Johnson from the state board of education.

Thanks for being with us, both of you.

Senator Wilson, is this test an accurate demonstration of student progress, as the state says?

FREDERICA WILSON, FLORIDA STATE SENATE: I don't think it is. I think that we have not accurately prepared our students to pass the FCAT. I think that we have to begin earlier. I think that we're scrambling now for solutions. That's why we're asking that this be postponed, because all of the actions that we're taking now, for remediation and other continuation processes that will help the children, these are things that should have been thought up last year. Some of the exemptions that we have put in place for the exceptional education student, the schools are scrambling now to find a way to write the IEPs, to contact the parents within 10 days. These are options that should have been in place before the hammer fell.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: I'm sorry. Let me just jump in here.

Miss Johnson, let me ask you -- you know, a lot of the students are Hispanic. English is the second language. Is this test fair?

JULIA JOHNSON, FLA. BOARD OF EDUCATION: Yes, we believe that the test is fair. The test was created using the Sunshine State standards. Those standards were developed by teachers that are looking at a competency necessary to be productive members of our society to participate in our workforce.

We believe that the standards and the tests accurately measure that, and that we are putting in place the tools necessary to ensure that the students are well prepared, and that they do have what they indeed need to pass this test.

To the extent that they have not passed the test, however, we're not saying that that means failure. What that means is we're rolling up our sleeves and showing it even more of a commitment. We're bringing in additional aspects in terms of remediation for FCAT, GED fast tracks, a variety of tools that will be made available to these students, because we do believe that first they need these skills in order to be successful. We're not willing to just give them a diploma when they don't have the skills, because we know that that would mean failure.

COOPER: Senator Wilson, what about that? I mean, is it fair to -- I mean, does it make any sense to give student ace diploma who can't pass a test that school officials are saying is written at the 10th grade level?

WILSON: Well, we have other credentials for passing tests. We have a grade point average that many of the children have exceeded. We have course work that many of the children have exceeded. We have children who have been accepted to college. We have children that have been accepted to nursing school and they still cannot pass the FCAT.

They have passed the ACT. They have passed the SAT. We have honor students unable to pass the FCAT. The FCAT is not culturally sensitive to the children. The children have not been exposed to many of the materials that's covered...

COOPER: Right.

WILSON: ...and so it's unfair for the children and it's unfair for the families of Florida to have this dumped into their lives, into their families at this stage of the game.

COOPER: Miss Johnson...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: I'm sorry. Let me just jump in here.

Miss Johnson, I want to read to you one of the questions. I'm not going to ask to you solve it or anything, but I just want to show our audience and you and everyone else sort of what kind of questions we're talking about.

JOHNSON: Sure.

COOPER: The Spartan -- this is the question. It's mathematics.

The Spartan Satellite is in the shape of a cube that measures that measures five feet on each edge. Now if the satellite weighs 24 pounds per cubic foot on Earth, what is the total weight in pounds of the satellite on Earth?

You know, I got to tell you, you know, when I read this my eyes glazed over. We asked a lot of the staff. None of them could answer it. Is this a fair question for a student, Miss Johnson?

JOHNSON: I appreciate that. But what you have to understand about the test, there are a range of questions. They're very, very basic questions, and there are some more difficult questions.

But in order to pass, you only need to score at a level two, which is still below grade level but at least demonstrate that have you some basic skills. So I submit to you while that while that was a difficult question, we are training the teachers, working with the students to ensure that they're prepared to answer questions. But that's not the only question, and given the range of questions.

If you look at a true sample test, there will be those that can you answer. But I assure you there will be a great number which you can.

COOPER: Senator Wilson, what about that?

WILSON: The FCAT should not be the single determinate of whether a child should receive a diploma. And that's what has happened. We have honor students....

COOPER: And so what exactly -- what exactly do you want to have happen? This test just tossed out?

WILSON: For this -- for this class of 2003, and let's see what else we can find that would accurately measure the children. The test should not be used...

COOPER: Are you opposed to any kind -- any kind of standardized test?

WILSON: No, I am a school principal. I believe in high standards. I was the principal of an A school. I truly believe in high standards. But I also believe that children should be counseled into the appropriate course work that's going to be covered on the test. I believe that assessment should be done to find out where children are lacking, and then use the results of that assessment to remediate the weaknesses, not to hold them back.

COOPER: All right. We're going have to end it there. State Senator Frederica Wilson and Julia Johnson, appreciate you joining us.

By the way, for the viewers at home who had their pencils out, the answer to the question we gave was 3,000 pounds. See how many of you got it right.

Thanks very much for joining us.

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