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Lowering the Bar: Education Board Changes FCAT Scoring

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida Email
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida Email

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 16, 2012

Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

To avoid a precipitous drop in student scores the Florida Board of Education on Tuesday lowered the passing grade on a statewide writing test in an effort to insulate schools from a decline that would affect school funding.

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson responds to the question of whether the Department of Education is eating crow after its board lowers standards for the FCAT writing test. During an interview with reporters, he talks about whether the dramatic drop in writing scores, and the move to lower the passing grade as a result, undermines confidence in Florida's standardized testing system and what he would say to students discouraged by this latest problem with the FCAT.

Meeting in an emergency session, the board agreed to lower the passing grade from 4.0 to 3.0 on the FCAT writing assessment for the current school year after statewide numbers showed the passing rate fell through the floor, dropping in fourth grade from 81 percent to 27 percent.

Eighth and 10th graders experienced similar drops in writing grades.

The emergency rule will be in effect for 90 days. The board will address permanent rules within that time.

But even with the lower standards, more students this year will not receive a satisfactory score, a drop in success that state education officials say is prompted by tougher testing criteria and the fact that each test was scored by two people.

The Department of Education took some responsibility for the drop, saying it did not adequately prepare schools and teachers for more rigorous standards that were put in place this year, which included an increased focus on grammar and punctuation.

Instead the new standard appears to have been rushed, which led to the dramatic increase in unsatisfactory scores.

"This conversation should have come up earlier," DOE Secretary Gerard Robinson acknowledged. "We’ll do better going forward."

School specific writing scores will not be out until at least the end of the week, leaving many districts in limbo as they wait to see if their schools will garner the necessary scores to keep the overall school grade from dropping, which has financial implications for already cash-strapped districts.

Rep. Ron Saunders, R-Key West, and Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association react to a significant drop in FCAT writing scores.

Passing scores on the FCAT writing assessment for fourth graders plummeted from 81 percent to 27 percent. Passing scores in eighth grade fell from 82 percent to 33 percent.

Tenth graders taking the test saw a similar drop in success. While 80 percent passed the test last year, only 38 percent scored a 4 or above on a 6-point scale this time around.

At the 3.0 threshold, 81 percent of fourth graders, 77 percent of eighth graders and 84 percent of 10th graders passed the test.

Some board members reluctantly supported the lower standards, but made it clear they would not continue to do so. School scores are expected to be out by the end of the week.

"The change from 4.0 to 3.0 looks like we are lowering standards," said John Padget. "I'm only voting on this so we can hold (schools) harmless for this year only:"

Other board members, however, said the lower scores are not a reflection of student aptitude, but a change in scoring that has raised the bar.

"This is absolutely not a retreat," said vice chairman Roberto Martinez. "It is maintaining the equivalence with last year, we're just using a much more rigorous application of the scoring rubric."

The test score drop became the vehicle for parents, teachers and local administrators to vent on the FCAT writing test and testing in general. The board took numerous calls from parents who said the high stakes tests are stressing out their kids.

Teachers said they were not given an adequate heads up on what the new criteria would mean.

"We literally didn't receive much information at all," said Holly Wallace, a writing teacher. "We were a little out of touch as far as what exactly the expectations were."

Leon County Superintendent Jackie Pons, worried that contrary to the board's assertion that school districts would not be penalized by the new standards, many school districts would still see their school grades fall based on the results of the writing assessment.

Despite the lower standard, some districts will still be adversely affected. School grades are partially determined by FCAT scores. Schools that perform poorly must divert resources to fixing the problem, which takes funds away from other areas.

The low scores brought concern from the top as well. Gov. Rick Scott, in a sharply worded statement Monday, said the lower scores were of great concern.

"The significant contrast in this year's writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results," Scott said.

Critics of FCAT testing also used the opportunity to take their shots.

"Florida’s overemphasis on testing is insane," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber. "We have become a school system whose entire purpose seems to be to prepare kids for minimal competence tests."


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