Camel Schmamel! No Wonder FCAT Scores Took a Dive
Around the State
I feel like the kid in the back of the class with her hand raised, jumping up and down in the chair. Ooh, ooh, I know the answer, teacher! Call on me!
I know the reason why the passing scores on the FCAT writing test in fourth grade fell from 81 percent to 27 percent.
Well, a goodly part of the reason, anyway.
It's true, the state made the scoring tougher this year, for the first time demanding students use correct spelling and grammar and do a better job presenting logical arguments backed up with relevant details. That certainly had a negative impact on scores. But it didn't account for all the problems.
I know because a week after the test was administered, I talked to two frustrated fourth-grade teachers at two different schools, both of whom predicted an almighty crash-and-burn for the results of the 2012 test and the terrified students who took it.
It's the question, they said. The thing educators call "the prompt." The big, fat, absurdly ridiculous hump of a question.
You be the judge. Remember that this question was given across the board to all Florida fourth graders -- Haitian kids new to the state and new to the language, inner city kids, kids with every manner of cultural and economic disadvantage. Here is the question exactly:
“Suppose you or someone else had a chance to ride a camel. Imagine what happens on this camel ride. Write a story about what happens on this camel ride.”
A camel ride? You get a chance to ask a kid to write about one thing in a year and it's about an imaginary camel ride?
Now, I've been around some. Traveled to lots of places. But I promise you, in my six decades on this planet, I have never ridden a camel.
"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I saw that question," the teacher from Palm Beach County told me. "You had to see the blank looks on my students' faces."
Said the teacher from Duval County, "We aren't allowed to answer students' questions or give hints. We say nothing. We give them the prompt and after that they have 45 minutes to write -- provided they have any idea where to start."
The question caused one Palm Beach County student to collapse in tears and run out of the classroom. In Jacksonville, two students sat quiet for 45 minutes, never wrote a word.
Said the Palm Beach teacher, "In the six years I've been teaching, I've never used any material that so much as mentioned a camel. Not ever. I know for a fact that not one of my students has even been to a zoo.
"You want to set up 9- and 10-year-old students to fail, ask them about a camel."
I was going to write on this subject back in March. But then I talked to the folks at the Florida Department of Education responsible for administering the FCAT writing test. Sharon Koon, assistant deputy commissioner for assessment, convinced me our instincts were all wrong, that the camel prompt had been field-tested up the wazoo, that it would appeal to a fourth grader.
I did tell her I found it mildly amusing that after a "rigorous field test" of 1,500 students, and then 25 educators vetting it for bias and sensitivity, the best the DOE could come up with was write about your camel ride.
"I must tell you," said Koon, "Of our field-test students, less than one-quarter of 1 percent were off topic. This is going to be fine."
Not so fine, as it turns out.
Now we know. The opinion of two teachers in the classroom -- the trenches -- carries more weight than the opinion of 25 educators at the DOE. Which is as it should be.
Just before my interview with Koon ended, she reminded me, "Writing is a skill all these students will need to function in the real world."
Oh, I know, because in the real world, we're constantly asked to write a five-paragraph story in 45 minutes about an imaginary camel ride.
Thanks for the lesson in real-world functionality.
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or at (850) 727-0859.