The FCAT is a standardized test used in public schools in Florida: it is administered every year to students between third and tenth grade. It was introduced on an experimental basis in 1998, and took over from the older HSCT examination as a graduation requirement in 2001.

No matter what grade you're in, the FCAT includes reading and mathematics sections. Fourth graders have a writing exam, fifth graders have a science exam, and eighth and tenth graders have both writing and science exams. If you don't pass the tenth grade FCAT, you don't graduate from high school.

Unlike the SAT and other Scantron-based tests, the FCAT incorporates written answer portions as well as multiple choice. Some math questions require the student to display their method for solving the problem.

Public school funding is largely based on FCAT scores. If a school has chronically low scores, the state can change its funding or shut it down entirely. This means that many school administrators take a draconian approach to teaching for the FCAT, and that the pressure on students to ace the test is astronomical.

Good teachers hate the FCAT, because it limits what they can teach. Lazy teachers love the FCAT, because it makes planning classes much easier. Although extensive curriculum overhauls across the state have raised FCAT scores, it remains to be seen whether students are actually learning more, or simply being taught to take the test.

This is an essay I wrote for AP English back in high school. At that time (November 2000), the FCAT was still not a requirement: our graduating class was the last to escape its death grip.

Times are certainly changing. There was a time in history when public schools existed solely for education. Now, schools have become a big business, especially for politicians. Educational debates abound on our cable news channels, and whether the topic is school vouchers, accountability, accreditation, exemplary education, or school violence, every leader in the United States dependent on public opinion jumps to take sides. Yet these leaders have one fundamental problem in their arguments: they are not attached to the system. As we leap into the twenty-first century, our nation's education is being managed by people educated in the twentieth, who seem to have never experienced or studied the underlying problems in the nation's school system.

Florida's public education is a case example in the asinine measures being proposed by the government. Our state's graduation rates have been ranked 47th in the nation, at 56%. When almost half of our teenagers cannot even finish high school, it would make sense to either lower graduation requirements or raise the quality of elementary and middle school education. Yet neither was done: instead, the state instituted the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test), which is now beginning to show its true negative effects on South Florida's students as it passes from experiment to requirement.

After Jeb Bush was elected to the governor's mansion in Tallahassee, the state legislature decided to make the FCAT a statewide high school competency exam. To throw more stones into the pond, they decided to make FCAT scores a crucial part of school funding, giving major financial bonuses to schools based on how well their students do on the exam. One would imagine this to be a positive influence, but its effects have been negative in spades. Schools have cut back on extracurricular programs viewed as unnecessary—magnet facilities, academic clubs—and diverted the funding into mandatory "FCAT prep" courses, meant to teach remedial math and English skills. By creating these mandatory courses, they not only attempt to educate failing students: they force successful students to plod along with middle school-level courses of study.

Thanks to the FCAT, high schools across Florida are cutting their programs for advanced students in favor of remediating students who have been ignored for years. Advanced Placement courses, college-level treatments of high school courses that were once available widely, are now few and far between, being dropped from classrooms as funding and students dissipate. As programs like these fall, so do the students themselves. Advertising in the latter stages of the 2000 election repeated the numbers to us yet again: students in Western Europe and East Asia are doing better on standardized testing than their American peers, and suffering far fewer societal problems at the same time.

Where does the madness stop? The public education system has already ravaged an entire generation, and now its victim has begun to fight it back. As Americans, we may take our free education system for granted at times, but we will not accept inferiority when superiority can be achieved. When so many students are forced to turn to violence as the sole means of rebellion against a common enemy, it is evidence by itself that the system has failed everyone: both the students it educates and the taxpayers it is funded by. When our brightest students perish alongside our not-so-bright students, it cannot be interpreted as nothing less than a crisis. When our government is proposing to privatize education because they cannot run it efficiently enough, it is proof that the time has come to fight.

No American with an eye toward the future can ignore the fleeting state of its public education. The changes, however, must start now, on every level, and with an eye toward individual achievement. Saving Florida's public education system depends upon our leaders. Today may be too late to teach today's leaders, but tomorrow will be too late to teach tomorrow's.

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