At Miami Dade College, the final project for students in most remedial writing classes is to write a single paragraph by the end of a semester.
“We’re looking to see that students can focus a topic, maintain a main idea, develop that point, support that point, use transitions,” said Associate Professor Michelle Riley. And she said it’s very difficult for many of them.
Vallet Tucker, who teaches honors English at Miami Northwestern Senior High, and said her average 10th-grade student reads at a seventh-grade level.
“And I have honors students,” she said. “This is 10th-grade material, and they’re not there yet. The vocabulary is not where it should be —the stamina for reading.”
FCAT focus of criticism
Standardized testing has been a big part of public education in Florida for more than a decade. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test debuted in 1998. In high school, it’s used as a tool to determine students’ class placement and whether they can graduate.
But over time, the FCAT has also become a management tool. Students’ scores now determine school funding levels, teacher evaluations, and starting this year, teacher pay. FCAT scores also help determine whether a school itself stays open or is shut down for poor performance.
Critics of the FCAT say teachers, under pressure to help students achieve higher test scores, have emphasized test-taking skills over core subject lessons. Students are taught to memorize facts and eliminate answers on multiple-choice questions.
“From the time a child is in kindergarten, every option that a child is given has four answers for which two or three can be easily eliminated,” said Raquel Regalado, a Miami-Dade School Board member. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you four options for which two or three can be easily eliminated. And that’s the problem.”
The FCAT has become more rigorous over the years in reading, writing and math. But the material doesn’t align with what is tested on the college entrance exam.
In 2006, the research arm of the Florida Legislature, known by its acronym OPPAGA, studied remedial education in community colleges. The study concluded that the FCAT created a disconnect between the skills taught in public schools and those needed in college.
Success on the FCAT, the state accountability office found, “does not ensure students are prepared for college-level work.” OPPAGA noted that despite previous reports pointing out the same problems, state education leaders and legislators had not reviewed the effectiveness of the FCAT.
Matthew Ladner, a policy and research advisor for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, is a defender of FCAT. He said the test helped increase the high school graduation rate. In the 2010-2011 school year, Florida graduated the most students, and students of color, in the state’s history. Lander sees it as not surprising that some of those students would struggle at the college level.
“So we should not view the fact that these students then go on to an institution of higher education and have to take a remedial course necessarily as a catastrophic failure,” Ladner said. “This is sort of a process on the way to success in the sense that a lot of those students in Florida higher education institutions today would have dropped out of high school 15 years ago.”
The increasing number of people entering college, he said, may be a factor in rising remedial education numbers.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org. StateImpact Florida is an educating reporting project of NPR, WUSF in Tampa and WLRN in Miami. For more information, and to read more about remedial education, visit http://stateimpact.npr.org.