Cash for grades

Here's the official story: Cheney Elementary School principal Kathleen Sanborn couldn't wait until June to find out how her school did on the state's all-important Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. So in the middle of "FCAT week" in February 2000, she "hand graded" a sample of fifth-grade tests, roughly two classes, erasing stray pencil marks that might confuse the mechanical-grading machine.

It was illegal, but Sanborn says she didn't know it at the time. The next morning when she discovered she'd broken state law, Sanborn stopped. A month later, the Orange County School Board issued her a written reprimand, but even then Sanborn didn't realize how serious the situation was. Neither, apparently, did the school board.

A Cheney teacher filed an anonymous complaint claiming Sanborn had "changed test answers" and told teachers she'd base their evaluations on how well their classes did. School district officials told Sanborn they "had to" write a reprimand. Nonetheless, the school board extended Sanborn's employment contract through the 2000-2001 school year, and gave her a $4,000 raise.

By law, however, the written reprimand triggered a state investigation. The Education Practices Commission in Tallahassee interviewed 10 Cheney teachers, but none said they saw Sanborn actually change test answers. Still, the EPC ruled that Sanborn breached test security, put her on probation and suspended her teaching license for one year.

After the state's investigation, however, the district opted for harsher punishment. Sanborn hired an attorney because she feared for her job, though she had a spotless 25-year history in Orange County and would be pension-eligible in a little over a year.

In May 2001, Sanborn reached a settlement with the district: She lost her position as principal and was demoted to "staffing specialist," she took a $25,000 pay cut, and agreed that in 15 months, when she was eligible to collect her pension, she'd retire. (She later negotiated to stay on at Arbor Ridge Elementary until January 2003.)

But some Cheney parents never bought the official version. They say the district's punishment -- and the secretive nature in which district officials treated the whole affair -- is more consistent with an administrator who actually changed FCAT scores. That, after all, was the original charge.

And that school year, 1999-2000, Cheney's FCAT scores improved so much that the lower-middle income school's grade under Gov. Jeb Bush's "A+ for Education plan" shot from a "C" to an "A," one of just 16 schools in Orange County to make a two-letter-grade jump. It earned $72,000 in "school recognition" money from a state fund earmarked for faculty bonuses and new equipment, plus the prestige that comes with being a high performer. Indeed, Sanborn's $4,000 raise that summer was larger than normal.

The next school year, Cheney fell back to a "C," where it's been ever since.

Sanborn flatly denies cheating and calls the whole incident "an innocent mistake." She refers to herself as the school board's political "sacrificial lamb."

"The way they handled it was much harsher than I expected," she says. "I was shocked."

No matter which story you believe -- Sanborn as a cheater or Sanborn as a political sacrifice -- what happened at Cheney two years ago illustrates the inherent flaw in Bush's much-touted education plan: High scores are more important than real learning. Districts push principals to get scores up, and principals in turn put the heat on teachers and students. After all, there's money involved.

As one fourth-grade teacher told the EPC: "It would not surprise me [if Sanborn cheated]. She's more concerned about test scores than [the] well-being of the school or students or faculty."

The "F" in FCAT

The FCAT can trace its roots directly to the conservative agenda that brought us the "Contract with America" in 1994. In fact, in Bush's failed first run for office, he sought to dismantle Florida's department of education and implement a statewide voucher program.

But he lost.

By 1998 Bush was sounding more moderate, at least on the voucher issue -- he made them peripheral, reserved only for students in the state's worst schools.

The primary element of his school-reform plan was, and is, the school-grading system, which ranks schools based heavily on how well they do on the FCAT. Schools that improve a grade from one year to the next, or get an "A," are rewarded with a $100-per-student bonus. It's up to the principal and student-advisory council to decide how to spend the money.

Students at schools that get two "F" grades in four years are eligible for vouchers to attend better public schools or private (often religious) schools. Right now, 10 of the state's 68 "F" schools are eligible for vouchers, including Mollie E. Ray Elementary in Orlando, which lost 55 students to vouchers this year.

To date, 577 Florida students use the $3,892 vouchers for private schools, and about 900 more have switched public schools. (A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Florida's voucher program is making its way through the state's courts.)

But the FCAT has been controversial since it started in 1999, and the litany of complaints about it are, by now, familiar: teachers "teach the test"; subjects such as art, music, history, geography and (until this year) science aren't emphasized in class because they're not heavily emphasized on the test; and after-school programs have been replaced by FCAT-prep courses. Simply put, the FCAT dominates schools.

The pressure is on for students too; if they don't pass, they're not promoted. (Last year about 12 Cheney third-graders didn't make the cut.) You have to pass the 10th-grade version before you can graduate.

Though the Department of Education insists cheating isn't a problem, teachers' advocates say that as long as evaluations and salaries ride on test scores, the motive to bend the rules is there. "Our schools are not well funded," says Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Educators Association. "So schools scrap with one another for these meager resources, and that makes it worse."

That's something not even education-department spokesman Adam Shores can deny: "There is a lot riding on this test."

Sneaking a peak

FCAT security is paramount. The tests are spread out over three days, and each evening during the test period, the answers are stored in a locked storage cabinet by each school's testing coordinator. The teachers who administer the tests are allowed to "erase stray marks," but nothing else.

When complete, the tests are shipped to each district's testing coordinator. The coordinators store the tests until the state's grading company, NCS Pearson, picks them up. Results come back four months later (although they're usually late). Until then, no one is supposed to know how the school did.

That's where Sanborn went wrong.

The day she hand-graded tests she also told teachers she was going to base evaluations (and consequently future paychecks) on how their classes did. One teacher, James Brown, told the EPC that Sanborn said half of the tests were "below expectations." Another teacher said Sanborn hinted the school might jump to a "B."

Sanborn shouldn't have known anything about the test. When the school unexpectedly jumped to an "A," parents became suspicious.

"I think there was something going on that wasn't right," says one PTA mom who asked not to be named. "For the grade to change that dramatically is very fishy."

Even teachers that defend Sanborn offer a "Who knows?" when asked whether or not the principal actually changed scores. As one Cheney parent says, "She was there, she had the eraser out."

Regardless of the lingering questions, parents and teachers interviewed for this story (nearly all of whom requested anonymity as they either still work for the school district or have children at Cheney) paint a troubling story of the divisive impact the FCAT had that year on their school.

"The reigns were too tight," says one teacher.

The school board made it clear it wanted grades up, the teacher says, and Sanborn took that directive head-on, maniacally gearing all teaching that year toward FCAT readiness. "A lot of us had a big problem with that."

So much so that after the school year a group of second-grade teachers left the school, the teacher says. Pro-Sanborn teachers left after she was forced out the following year. Even the PTA was divided into pro- and anti-Sanborn factions. The two sides actually got into a fistfight at the school carnival, a PTA member recalls.

Everyone interviewed for this story praised Sanborn's organizational skills and her outgoing manner. (Her personnel record touts her as "eager, energetic and ambitious.") But in the end, those who liked Sanborn's managerial style believed her story, and those who didn't, didn't.

Sanborn herself says the $72,000 in FCAT reward money wasn't motive enough to cheat; it's a drop in the bucket compared to Cheney's $2.5 million annual budget, she notes. The reward money went in part for teacher and faculty bonuses, but according to one teacher who's also on the advisory council, "some" of the money made its way back into the classroom.

We're No. 47!

The FCAT has, of course, become synonymous with Bush's first term. And he's beating the standardized-testing drum in his bid for reelection Nov. 5. It works, he says, because schools are forced to be accountable to the parents whose tax dollars fund them. And there's no denying the fact: FCAT scores are rising.

But FCAT opponents, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, counter that Florida still ranks near the bottom of almost every education category. We're 46th in SAT scores and 47th in per-capita education funding, and the A+ plan is a poor substitute for properly funding schools, say FCAT opponents. They want the test returned to its original use -- as a diagnostic tool for teachers and administrators.

According to University of Central Florida political scientist and education-politics expert Dwight Kiel, it's not uncommon for schools to massage numbers when there's money and reputations at stake. Across the country in states with similar systems, teachers told students they didn't think would test well to stay home on test day. In Florida, Kiel says schools stopped reporting fights because they counted against their grades.

Some of the problems have been fixed. Federal law now requires schools to have 96 percent of all students to take a state's standardized tests, putting an end to cherry picking. And Florida recognized the problem with fights and stopped counting violent incidents as a ranking criteria. But even as officials crack down, the temptation remains.

"[Teachers] are going to choose the path of least resistance," says Princeton Review vice president Stephen Kutno, who specializes in education policy and strategy for the test-prep company. "If I'm going to get penalized [for poor scores], what are some ways I can get around the test?"

That's not the A+ plan's only problem. The program's reliance on the FCAT forces teachers "to be very constrained," says Kiel, whose daughter attends University High in east Orange County. "They can't change pace for a week or two. It's constraining on creative teachers."

And the FCAT doesn't help kids in the real world, Kutno adds. "If they can't take the skills they've used [into the work place] then we haven't done much more than improve test scores."

School grades are also misleading because the student population is so transient.

Statewide, nearly one-third of elementary students will transfer in and out of schools each year. In poorer schools, the figure sometimes reaches 50 percent. So schools' improvement, or lack thereof, can be attributed less to how teachers are performing than who moves into the neighborhood. Some Cheney teachers thinks that's exactly what happened the year Sanborn was accused of cheating.

Bush brags that, under his Governor's Assistance Plus Program, poor-performing schools are given extra money to reduce class sizes and improve teacher training. But while the state has a $122 million bonus pot, the Legislature only allocated $11 million this year for poorer schools. Instead, it relies heavily on federal and grant money to help poor schools.

Still, "Team Jeb!" defends its record. "I think it's exciting that student achievement is rising," says Bush flak Lisa Gates. She repeats the line even when the questions change: "I think it's exciting that student achievement is rising."

Bush boasts that the racial achievement gap is closing, that since 1998, 10 times as many black and Hispanic students have earned the highest score possible on the FCAT's reading test. To junk the system, he says, would go back to the old way of throwing money at problems instead of really fixing them.

"Bill McBride wants to remove all accountability from schools," Gates says. "He wants to take it back to the old system where no one knows how schools are doing."

That assessment is dead wrong, says Dinnen. "I missed the tidal wave of money coming into our classrooms. They have made [the FCAT] the Super Bowl of educational achievement. They put this business-level competitiveness on schools. The people doing it don't know anything about the educational world."

Cash for grades

For those who weathered the second gubernatorial debate in person at Universal Studios on Oct. 15, there was one telling, if unexpected, moment. Chosen at random, 18-year-old Shellby Joslin of Melbourne asked Bush why he was so FCAT-dependent. It was a "waste of time," she said, and teachers spent nine weeks or more teaching just the test.

Bush responded immediately with a calm voice that belied the frustration on his face. "I'm sorry teachers are teaching to the test," he said. "That's not the appropriate use of the FCAT." Later he added that some "good teachers" endorse his plan, a jab at the teacher's union that staunchly opposes it. (Sanborn is one of the "good teachers" to whom Bush is referring. She likes his plan and downplays the effect it had on her school.)

Over the years, Bush has answered "teaching the test" questions by saying that, if kids are learning the test, at least they're learning something. And there's something to be said for that: The FCAT is, after all, based on state-curriculum standards.

When UCF professor Kiel moved to the state in the early 90s, he thought there was too little standardized testing. Kids weren't being properly prepared for more important tests, like the SAT or ACT. But when the pendulum swung, it went too far, he says. Almost overnight, the FCAT became the most important element of Florida's public education because it's now indelibly tied to money.

What actually happened at Cheney two years ago will forever be a matter of speculation. But if Bush wins a second term and the A+ plan continues in its present form, it certainly won't be the last FCAT controversy Florida will see.

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