Test-bashing in Florida could hurt poor and minority students the most

If Florida deserves applause for its recent academic progress, the Miami-Dade school district deserves a standing ovation. The five-time finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize is a standout district in a standout state. Between 2000 and 2010, no big district in Florida made more progress in reading and math, even though Miami-Dade has a greater rate of low-income (70 percent) and minority kids (91 percent) than any of them. Over roughly the same period, no big district in Florida made a bigger jump in graduation rates, going from far below the state average to slightly above it.

Against that hopeful backdrop, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, (pictured here) offered some particularly biting assessments of Florida’s education reforms last week. In an op-ed for the Miami Herald, the former principal and state lawmaker said school grades were “madness” and “ridiculous” and “nothing but hoodwinking parents and the community.” Then she added:

“Every time a young black male commits murder in Miami, or even at times a lesser crime, I check their school records to see if they have a diploma. Most of them are casualties of the FCAT. I call them the FCAT kids.”

It’s fair to say Florida’s public education system has far to go, even after 14 years of heady change, even after being a national leader in academic gains for much of that time. There are still far too many kids not being educated to their potential, in an evolving system that is still searching – and sometimes fumbling – for the best ways to maximize its potential.

It’s also reasonable to debate how much the FCAT and school grades have contributed to the progress. Miami-Dade has had two hard-charging, highly acclaimed superintendents in a row. It probably benefitted more from the class-size reduction amendment than many districts in Florida. Compared to the other big districts, it has among the highest percentages of students enrolled in charter schools and in private schools via tax credit scholarships.  I think – and these are just the hunches of a layman — that those factors and many others made a difference.

But I don’t think it can be credibly denied that the FCAT and school grades were essential parts of the mix.

They revealed to us the ugly reality that far too many students, particularly those of color, were being left behind. They forced schools, more than ever before, to focus the talents of teachers on low-performing students. And teachers are delivering, according to one respected report after another.

These are especially tense times in Florida education reform, and there’s no doubt state education officials have made mistakes that have undermined confidence. But we should all be more cautious about the language we use to criticize people and policies and each other. Hyperbole and outrage may fire up troops, but it ignores the genuine academic progress of Florida’s low-income and minority students – and, I worry, puts their achievements at risk.

The kids that Wilson so passionately defends in Miami don’t need any more of that. They deserve more thoughtful consideration from all of us, including their congresswoman.