FCAT preparations take counselors away from job they love


Published: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 7:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 7:49 p.m.

Eight hours a day, five days a week, for three weeks each year, Jennifer MacEwan is forced to ignore the job she was hired to do.

As a counselor at Westwood Middle School, she and her colleagues are tasked with preparing and distributing FCAT materials in the weeks leading up to the test.

Arguments about the test's validity aside, one thing's for sure: Huge amounts of time and effort go into administering the FCAT every year.

It's up to each school's principal to decide who puts the testing materials together. Assistant principals and curriculum specialists often help out.

But for the most part, the burden falls on school counselors.

That's not because they don't have enough work already. School counselors provide much more than conflict resolution — they offer emotional support, help students through anger and behavioral issues, assist with special needs students, give college and career advice, provide curriculum support and even set up home visits and family interventions when necessary.

“It's not that the guidance counselors don't do a lot of stuff,” said Steven Stark, director of research, assessment and student information for Alachua County schools. “They certainly do, it's just that they're the easiest ones to put it on.”

By law, anyone handling FCAT testing materials must have a professional certificate in education, Stark said. That means only teachers, counselors and school administrators are allowed to handle the test.

And preparing testing materials is a full-time job, one that prevents the counselors from doing what they love: working with students.

The kids come walking down the hall, wanting to chat, then see the pile of test booklets in the FCAT prep room, MacEwan said. They stop, sigh and walk away.

When they come back after testing is over, she said, “It makes us so happy.”

FCAT prep happens year-round, but there's extra emphasis after winter break.

Across the district, FCAT eats up two to three weeks of counselors' and other school employees' time spent organizing the test, two weeks of testing and a couple of days packing up all the materials.

At the middle and high school level, most students take tests in multiple subjects, translating into thousands of pieces of testing materials at each school.

Each test booklet must have a label with a student's name, plus the student's test security number, which corresponds with the teacher administering the test and a room number.

Seating charts, made by each teacher, must corroborate the security numbers.

Test coordinators must also arrange accommodations for students who require them.

To ensure the security of the test, the Department of Education prohibits schools from opening materials until a week before testing begins. The time frame creates extra stress for coordinators at the largest schools.

“It's not a complex task,” Stark said. But, “it's a time-consuming and a tedious task.”

If anything doesn't match up when it gets back to the state Department of Education after testing, the school must investigate, resulting in school employees spending even more time away from teaching or counseling.

The advent of computer-based FCAT testing hasn't helped much.

Erin Camizzi, one of two counselors who prepare testing materials for the 560 students at Newberry High School, said computers make the two weeks of testing more streamlined.

However, Stark said each school must verify that all its computers comply with state requirements and take time out of classes to give students computer practice tests.

Computer-based testing is the same amount of work to organize, he said. It's just a different animal.

All that time away from counseling can have a negative effect on students, says Bill Goodman, director of guidance for Alachua County schools.

In Alachua County, he said, about half of all public school students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. “That in and of itself tells me the need for various levels of support.”

If a school has only one counselor and that person is busy preparing FCAT materials for two to three weeks during what many students find to be an incredibly stressful time, Goodman said, the teachers and assistant principals who take over the counseling roles are not the ones who are best trained to provide emotional and behavioral support.

“To me, those things are equally as important for kids to get while they're transitioning through school,” he said.

The negative effect of that varies by the level of support each child needs to be successful.

The district certainly has a large proportion of students who will do fine on their own, Goodman said, but there's probably an equal number of students who suffer without support.

And the counselors themselves?

They suffer, too, said MacEwan and Jill Kanji, another school counselor at Westwood Middle.

MacEwan's chiropractor expects her in his office more frequently during FCAT season.

Many coordinators say they get grouchy, and their spouses and friends have learned to leave them alone while testing is going on.

When the test is over, they celebrate.

“We do the part of the job that we love,” Kanji said. They talk to their students.

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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