TIME Education

What Happens When You Stop Testing and Start Teaching

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Jonathan Kirn—Getty Images

Darlena Cunha is a Florida-based contributor to The Washington Post and TIME among dozens of other publications.

While Florida wasted students' time with computer testing, my kindergarteners weren't learning how to write the alphabet

Last year, as I watched a trial run of an online test my five-year-old was taking, the decades-old earphones slipped down her head. She fumbled at the mouse in front of the computer, then clicked the button and liked the sound it made. So she clicked it again. She skipped a screen by accident. And once you skip a screen, you’re not allowed to go back.

The instructor went over to her and tried to explain that we could not just randomly click our mouse buttons, no matter how fun it was. We had to answer the questions. We had to get through the test.

My kindergartener looked at her blankly. Then came up with an answer she deemed a trump card.

“But it’s so shiny!” she exclaimed. The teacher sighed. She nodded slightly, but was called to help another student before she could re-explain the objective.

The FAIR test (Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading) is given to students grades K-2. It is supposed to take 35 minutes per student, but often takes up to an hour. It is given during class time at the beginning of the year and then twice more throughout the year. Each class has 18 students in it, and this year the teacher is required to sit with each one, devoting that hour to the individual student while another teacher, who has her own class to attend to, wrangles all the other students. This means the total time for test administration is 13 hours for one class plus 13 hours for the other class (as they’ve combined teachers). During that time, little to no actual instruction can take place. The assessment period, therefore, takes the first two weeks of school.

From a parental standpoint, it was a nightmare. Why should my kids miss out on instruction to take a rote test that doesn’t seem to measure anything?

This year, teacher Susan Bowles of Chiles-Lawton Elementary School in Gainesville put her job on the line by refusing to give the test to her students. Parents around the county gave her a metaphorical standing ovation.

“I know I may be in breach of my contract by not administering this test,” she wrote in a Facebook note to parents of her class. “I cannot in good conscience submit to administering this test three times a year, losing six weeks of instruction. There is a good possibility I will be fired.”

Letters of support came pouring in to the Superintendent’s office for Bowles, who had made it clear the issue was not with school officials, but with the government mandates for testing here in Florida.

On Sept. 11 of this year, I received an email from Owen Roberts, Superintendent of Alachua County Schools, in which he stated his support for Bowles, but asked parents to go to their local legislators to enact the change we all wish to see in regard to standardized testing.

“I have met personally with Mrs. Bowles,” he wrote, “and the district has heard from parents praising her as an excellent teacher. I certainly appreciate her concerns regarding FAIR testing. I have said clearly and publicly that I believe there is too much standardized testing here in Florida, and that much of it doesn’t offer a significant educational benefit for children.

“However, Florida law requires that all kindergarten students take the FAIR test during the first 30 days of school. Until the law changes, the district is obligated to administer the test.”

But the problems remain. Bowles stated in her note that the testing requirements have been increasing each year, yet the school budgets have not been given a boost to accommodate the changes. Teachers are expected to give the tests with no support. And things get lost. Important things.

Last weekend, I taught my twins, now in first grade, how to write a “g”. It’s not that they weren’t writing them at all, but because so much teaching time has been lost to testing, the kids are left to their own devices to build the basic blocks of learning, so that the teachers can keep up with the rigorous curriculum. My children, being adaptive and wily, devised their own ways to write the letters of the alphabet without formal instruction (other than what I’d taught them when they were four, the summer before school.) To write a “g”, my kids would draw a straight line down, then draw a little circle on top of the line, then make a tiny curve at the bottom of the line. It seems like no big deal, but when that is multiplied by every letter they have to write for every assignment, it ends up taking at least three times as long. My children were not finishing their work.

My kids work hard. I promise you, Florida, they do. And if we can’t trust our teachers to do their jobs, and to assess our kids given their expertise and experience in the field—if we ask them to give up their vocation to instead administer online tests and teach babies to bubble in the dots so that some machine can spit out a statistic to tell our state if we’re smart enough to get money to get smarter—we are doing a disservice to our children. We are no longer teaching them at all.

The good news is that Bowles’ stand, though a shot in the dark, helped to push an already growing unrest to its boiling point. Instead of losing her job, or having the state push the event under the rug, on Sept. 15 I received this email relaying a message from Florida’s Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart.

“…in light of the technical difficulties schools and teachers here in Alachua County and throughout the state have experienced with the FAIR test, the test will not be required for kindergarten screening within the first 30 days of school for this school year. In fact, FAIR testing will not continue for any students in grades K-2.”

We won. Susan Bowles won. Our students won. If this David-and-Goliath story doesn’t light the hearts of parents and teachers around the nation, and solidify efforts to teach our children, not test them, I don’t know what will. Alachua County has shown that we can make a difference. We just have to try.

Darlena Cunha is a Florida-based contributor to The Washington Post and TIME among dozens of other publications. You can find her on Twitter @parentwin or on her blog at http://parentwin.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Crime

George Zimmerman Threats Investigated by Police

George Zimmerman Appears Before Judge On Recent Aggravated Assault Charges
George Zimmerman, the acquitted shooter in the death of Trayvon Martin, faces a Seminole circuit judge during a first-appearance hearing on charges including aggravated assault stemming from a fight with his girlfriend, Nov. 19, 2013 in Sanford, Florida. Getty Images

Zimmerman allegedly threatened to kill another driver

Florida police are investigating a report that George Zimmerman stalked a Florida man and threatened to kill him this week after a road altercation, according to police reports.

Records suggest that the first exchange occurred Tuesday when Zimmerman, who was cleared of murder charges in the 2013 shooting of Trayvon Martin, pulled alongside a driver in Lake Mary, Fla. and tried to get his attention.

“What’s your problem? Why are you shaking your finger?” Zimmerman reportedly asked the other driver. Eventually, Zimmerman allegedly threatened to shoot and kill the other driver, prompting him to call the police.

The driver claims Zimmerman waited nearby the driver’s work place the following day, leading to another 911 call.

“It seems this guy is just waiting on me,” the other driver told a 911 dispatcher.

Zimmerman has grabbed media attention on several occasions since his trial last year, including several run-ins with the law. Police arrested Zimmerman after a fight with his girlfriend in November, but dropped the assault and battery charges after his girlfriend decided not to pursue the matter. In another instance, he was pulled over for speeding.

During his trial, Zimmerman raised more than $200,000 from the public to mount his legal defense. He has found various ways to continue to raise funds since his acquittal. He sold a painting of an American flag for more than $100,000 on eBay in January, and signed up to fight Rapper DMX in a celebrity boxing match the following month.

TIME Infectious Disease

Potential Ebola Case in Miami Tests Negative for Disease

The CDC says the patient was "low-risk" from the start

A patient being treated in a Miami-area hospital for possible Ebola has tested negative for the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed in a press conference Monday that a low-risk patient was tested for possible Ebola by a Florida state laboratory response network, and the test came back negative. The CDC will also be testing the specimen for a second confirmation.

So far, the only patients with confirmed Ebola to be treated in the United States are three health care workers who were infected with the disease in West Africa and were evacuated back to the U.S. Currently, Dr. Richard A Sacra, a physician working with the aid group SIM USA, is being treated for Ebola in a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. In August, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol survived Ebola while being treated for their disease at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

The CDC says it will disclose further information after it tests the specimen of the Miami patient.

TIME Basketball

Shaquille O’Neal Applies to Join Reserve Police Force in Florida

Shaquille O'Neal
Television personality and former professional basketball player Shaquille O'Neal leaves the Sirius XM Studios in New York City on Aug. 11, 2014. Ray Tamarra—GC Images/Getty Images

Would-be criminals, prepare for the Shaq Attack

Retired NBA star and very tall man-about-town Shaquille O’Neal has applied to be a reserve police officer in Doral, Fla.

O’Neal, who is 7 ft. 1 in., will now have to clear a background check, as well as pass Florida’s officer-certification exam, before joining the department in Doral, about 13 miles west of Miami. The test will assess the three-time All-Star Game MVP’s physical and psychological fitness, city spokeswoman Christina Baguer told the Miami Herald.

The doorframe-filling O’Neal will “have to do everything else to be certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, just like any of our other officers, reserve or not reserve,” said Baguer.

The tests are unlikely to pose a problem, even though “Manny Shaq-iaou” once told the New York Times that “I don’t need to work out.”

In fact, the 42-year-old — who has played for the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers, among others — has passed the exam before, doing a stint as a reserve police officer in Miami Beach.

O’Neal wrote on his previous August 2004 application that his special skills included “laptop computer, binnochulars, master of surveillance.” He also denied having any “savings or checking accounts, any investments, or an automobile,” according to a 2011 feature in the Miami New Times.

In 2011, O’Neal also told the New York Times that he was considering a formal police career and “running for undersheriff in Lake County, Fla.” That is until local journalists pointed out that the job is appointed, not elected.

TIME animals

Florida Man Says He Ate 15 Threatened Tortoises and Planned to Eat 11 More

A gopher tortoise. Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute—Reuters

An officer found him in the woods, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Wildlife authorities say a Florida man confessed to killing gopher tortoises, a threatened species, for their meat.

On Facebook, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote that a member of the public tipped them off to tortoise shells that were being dumped in the woods in Citrus County, north of Tampa. Officer Thomas Reid went to the woods and found a container with 11 live tortoises. He stayed there until the man showed up, confronting him when he started to move the reptiles into a truck.

“The man told Reid that he had killed 15 gopher tortoises and dumped the shells in the woods and that he had caught the 11 that were in the container and was planning on eating them,” according to the Facebook post.

The officer freed the 11 reptiles. No word on whether the man was making turtle soup.

(h/t Reuters via WFTS Tampa Bay)

MONEY Fast Food

WATCH: McDonald’s is Promising Even Faster Food

About 800 Florida McDonald's restaurants are guaranteeing a one-minute drive-thru experience or you'll get free food.

MONEY Shopping

WATCH: Shop This Weekend and Escape the Sales Tax

Several states are suspending sales taxes to encourage shoppers to hit the stores.

TIME animals

Webcam Captures 100 Endangered Baby Turtles Hatching in Florida

The baby loggerhead sea turtles emerged on Friday night

An endangered species just got a slight population boom. A live webcam in the Florida Keys captured the hatching of approximately 100 baby loggerhead sea turtles on Monday.

It is the first high-definition video to capture a sea turtle hatch, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The national service and Florida’s state service of the same name have undergone a string of efforts to ensure the proliferation of the turtles, which have been listed as a threatened species since 1978.

“It’s so important here in the Keys to protect these nests and these turtles,” said Harry Appel, president of the Save-a-Turtle organization based in Florida. “They’ve been around for millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of years.”

The baby turtles emerged on Friday night and, guided by dim moonlight, made their way to the nearby Atlantic Ocean, where they will spend their days.

TIME republicans

Governor Rick Scott Shows What a Real Scandal Looks Like

Rick Scott, Will Weayherford
Gov. Rick Scott, left, and house speaker Will Weatherford speak at a news conference after session on Thursday, May 1, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla. Steve Cannon—AP

The Florida governor has been questioned about his investment in a natural gas company and his aide's involvement in a rail project.

A few months ago, I wrote about an epidemic of fake Republican scandals that Democrats were hyping for 2014, starting with a nothingburger of a whatever-gate involving Florida Governor Rick Scott. My point was that political scandals rarely get traction, and shouldn’t get traction, without a semi-plausible link to significant public policies. Let me put it a different way: Damaging scandals look more like the two latest messes involving Governor Scott.

The first involves Scott’s support for a controversial Miami-to-Orlando rail project known as All Aboard Florida, when the company pushing it had financial ties to his chief of staff. The second involves Scott’s support for a controversial natural gas pipeline to North Florida, when he owned a stake in the company building it. You probably haven’t heard about these messes, because they’re pretty obscure. They’re also mini-messes, especially for Scott, who was once CEO of a hospital chain that paid a record $1.7 billion fine for fraud committed on his watch.

What could turn these messes into scandals is their potential link to public policies—in particular, to lame and unpopular policies that could look even worse if Scott’s probable opponent, Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, can frame them as corrupt policies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with government support for a train linking Miami and Orlando—though my pal Carl Hiaasen is not an All Aboard Florida fan—but it looks pretty sketchy after Governor Scott (at the urging of his conflicted chief of staff) rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail project that would have eventually linked Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Similarly, there’s a case to be made for a natural gas pipeline to Florida, but it’s hard to square with Scott’s support for utilities waging an outrageous war to prevent homeowners from going solar in the Sunshine State.

Asking questions about an opponent’s record can be good politics, but answering them can be even better politics. It’s one thing to ask why Scott rejected federal money for a shovel-ready high-speed train that promised 27,000 jobs and enjoyed strong support from Florida’s business community; it’s another thing to suggest that Scott was clearing the way for his crony’s speculative slow-speed train. It’s one thing to ask why the Sunshine State is intentionally skipping a nationwide solar revolution that is reducing carbon emissions while saving ratepayers money; it’s another thing to suggest that Scott has a personal interest in pushing gas instead.

Scott will have a dramatic financial advantage in the fall, and it’s not clear whether voters will accept Crist’s latest political change of clothes, especially in what’s shaping up as a Republican year. But Scott is unpopular—he’s still best known as the Medicare fraud guy—and so are his policies. The challenge for Democrats is to link the personal to the political. Real scandals can do that.

 

TIME Environment

The 5 Worst Invasive Species in the Florida Everglades

A most wanted list for alien pests in the Sunshine State

As I write in a cover story in TIME this week, invasive species are a growing threat around the U.S. And there’s no place quite as thoroughly invaded as Florida:

“We are ground zero for the impacts of invasive species,” says Doria Gordon, director of conservation science for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) . “And our invaders are very good at finding new habitats.”

Often those habitats are in or around the Everglades, that vast “river of grass” that covers much of South Florida. Half of the original Everglades has been developed for farming or housing, and the sprawling wetland has been carved up by more than 1,400 miles (2,250 km) of canals and levees that divert water for South Florida’s 5.8 million people. That mix of suburbs and wilderness makes the Everglades an invasive free-for-all.

But which invasive species pose the biggest threats to the Everglades? Check out the video above

 

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