WASHINGTON – Nearly 13,000 Florida high school seniors are without diplomas this year after failing the state's standardized test, sparking a boycott by the African-American community and complaints that the Bushes — both president and governor — are too committed to exams as a measure of success.
“I call it a testocracy,” said Ron Walters, the director of the African-American Leadership Institute (search) at the University of Maryland. He said that the tests used for high school graduation in Florida are culturally biased, as are most tests across the country now being used to measure the performance of schools, teachers and pupils.
“The sum total of these tests is that they are a strong reflection of the white Anglo-American-European experience in American culture,” and unfair to Hispanic and black test-takers, Walters said.
Black Baptist pastor Victor T. Curry, who likens President Bush to a "neo-Nazi" and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to "the godfather, the devil," launched a boycott this month of the state's major citrus and tourist industries. The action was in response to news that 12,794 out of 138,000 seniors are not receiving diplomas because they had, in part, failed the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (search).
Curry and others say a majority of the failed seniors are black and Hispanic, though the state has yet to release an official breakdown.
"Through policy, through laws, they are demonstrating a dislike for our children," said Curry, head of the New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, and host of a local radio program.
Third- and 10th-graders have been taking the FCAT since 1998. It also measures reading, math and writing skills in other grades. But this is the first year the test has been used as a determinant of whether third-graders move on to fourth grade and seniors graduate.
High schoolers have as many as six opportunities before 12th grade to pass the exam administered in 10th grade. Twelfth-graders who have failed so far can take the test again in June.
State officials say FCAT scores this year have actually increased for the first time overall among minority students, and call the boycott a politically motivated protest against the Republican governor, a frequent target of Democratic voters in the black and Hispanic communities.
“This is clearly just one of the fronts in which they are attacking the president and the president’s brother,” said Jay Greene, a Florida-based education specialist for the Manhattan Institute (search).
Earlier this month, the state announced that 41 percent of African-American students scored at or above grade level in 2003, compared to 23 percent in 1998. At the same time, 51 percent of Hispanic students scored at or above grade level in 2003, compared to 38 percent two years before; and 73 percent of white students scored at or above grade level, compared to 65 percent in 1998.
Frances Marine, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said at least 40 percent of students who aren’t graduating because of the FCAT haven’t passed other criteria — like credit hours and grades.
Marine said the exam has been developed and field-tested by teachers, and questions have been added and removed according to cultural sensitivities.
“It’s only appropriate that we challenge our students to do better,” she said. “We think it’s unconscionable to pass students who cannot read or write.”
But critics say many of the minority students taking the so-called “high-stakes” test have already achieved good grades and SAT scores and would be going on to college if it were not for failing the FCAT.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with that examination,” said state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who is bringing the boycott to his district and is hoping to launch a legal suit against the test as well. “That’s why we are bringing this quiet riot. It’s a form of civil disobedience.”
When the state Legislature returns in June for a special session, the governor will ask it to pass a number of measures that would alleviate the impact of the FCAT failures, including offering an accelerated GED program to seniors who have failed and using other tests as an equivalent to FCAT.
Many say his request followed the pressure of a boycott, and it hasn't appeased protesters.
“There’s something deeper here,” said Siplin. “I want to see the test suspended until we can figure out why these kids are flunking.”
Fox News' Jonathan Serrie contributed to this report.