Students always teach the teacher. That’s what I was told when, in the fall of 2010, I started teaching freshman composition at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I was a graduate assistant, working towards a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing. What an education I got during the four semesters I taught—and my own studies had nothing to do with it.
My composition students, most of them 18-year-olds straight out of Florida’s public schools, opened my eyes to the FCAT, specifically the writing test that has of late become the most cosmic of jokes. My students were laughing—quite cynically—much earlier. For what they said they learned from the FCAT has absolutely nothing to do with writing. The test had instead made them great students of politics and public relations.
They did not believe that the FCAT was really intended to test them on anything they knew; the months of harried instruction had taught them only how to take a test.
They repeatedly said the FCAT process had taught them to write like robots. They knew how to churn out five paragraphs—an introduction with a thesis, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. Thinking was divorced from the writing, and consequently, the new tasks of college-level writing often threw them.
And although their own lives depended on their FCAT success, they believed deeply that the results were far more important to their teachers—who were forced to teach in a certain fashion because their careers were at stake—and to the school boards and superintendents who got to congratulate themselves for producing ‘A’ schools, however an ‘A’ was calculated that year.
In short, my students believed the FCAT wasn’t designed to help them, but to make the adults in charge of their education look good.
Maybe you think I had a bunch of adolescent whiners in front of me. You’re wrong if you do.
Yes, they lived for texting and Facebooking. But only a handful just occupied a seat. These students were bright—bright enough to know that, with their lives so focused on the FCAT, they hadn’t been educated very well.
I hope this is true only in a few places: some said that as soon as the FCAT ended, they stopped learning about writing. Many said they hadn’t had much grammar instruction since middle school.
As a result, when we tried to revise their sentences, the most they could say was that their words didn’t flow very well; they couldn’t say why. A sentence is an engine of meaning. Like a mechanic who is a bust at his job if he doesn’t know the parts of a car’s engine, a writer cannot sharpen the meaning and clarity of a sentence if he doesn’t know the parts of speech and the varied ways they can work together to express complicated ideas. Many of these students didn’t know, but they had passed the FCAT.
These were not bad students.
They certainly did not have incompetent teachers.
These kids were not the products of a classroom but an obsession. The FCAT had made them wise, but only about the system.
That is sad beyond words, but what else is there to use? For now, these are the last of mine: dump that test.
Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the Tampa Bay Times, is a writer in Tampa.
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