Holding Schools 'Harmless,' State Lowers Bar on FCAT Writing Scores
Around the State
An emergency meeting of the state Board of Education on Tuesday lowered the passing scores on the 2012 FCAT writing exam in an effort to hold districts "harmless" over plummeting test performance.
Where scores averaged in the 80 percent range in 2010 and 2011, results tumbled to 30 percent this year. The sharply lower writing scores more closely matched the reading results, according to earlier stories by Sunshine State News.
Department of Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson admitted that "several things slipped through" prior to the administration of this year's exams.
"There should have been more follow-up on changes in rigor. This should have been communicated much more strongly," Robinson said of the test that was given to students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades.
Though officials said the writing test was the same as the one administered in previous years, the state designated two graders for each exam, instead of a single reader as was used before.
Additionally, students were expected to develop their essay arguments more fully and to demonstrate greater proficiency in punctuation and spelling.
But while board members on Tuesday voted quickly to lower the passing grade from 4.0 to 3.0, they maintained their move "was not a retreat."
Local school district superintendents worried that even the score reduction will yield more failing grades. One predicted that more than half the students in his district will still fail under the rescoring.
Robinson told board chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan that he could not confirm that prediction since no district-by-district data were available Tuesday.
Parents, meantime, expressed concern that the state board was "sweeping the problem under the rug" while downplaying what they saw as "a lack of preparation and direction."
Amber Winkler, an education researcher with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in New York City, said, "Just because students struggle to meet a higher learning threshold does not mean that the threshold should be lowered.
"Florida is highly regarded by many because it refuses to be complacent about student achievement; it continues to raise the cut scores on its tests to avoid stagnation," Winkler said.
Like it or not, Winkler said, "There are real consequences to raising expectations, including that many kids won’t be able to meet those expectations initially, but it is best to ratchet them up than be content with the status quo or cave in to political pressure.
"Determining the extent to which students can be stretched, versus defeated, is a tough calculation, but Florida should be lauded for trying to find that balance."
In 2010, Sunshine State News called attention to a widening gap between writing and reading scores on FCAT.
Confronted with inexplicably large differences between low reading results and sky-high writing scores, the Department of Education last year admitted to overly lenient grading of essays, and vowed to tighten standards.
Sunshine State News' investigation found that fewer than 40 percent of Florida's elementary- and middle-school students scored at proficient levels in reading. By ninth-grade, reading proficiency fell to 20 percent.
In response to SSN's questions about the disconnect, state education officials initially defended the rigor of the writing exam. They even disputed the common-sense presumption that a student's ability to read correlated in any way with that pupil's ability to write.
Officials didn't say so at the time, but it turns out that the single scorers of the 2011 writing exam weren't marking students down for such niggling details as spelling, grammar or punctuation.
The DOE said it would get serious about tagging such fundamental deficiencies, and factoring them into the scoring -- and the scores slipped accordingly.
Gov. Rick Scott, in a statement released Monday night, said:
"Our students must know how to read and write, and our education system must be able to measure and benchmark their progress so we can set clear education goals.
"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."
Some classroom teachers say curriculum decisions have set students up to fail. They point, for example, to schools and districts that have de-emphasized spelling to the point of relying on computer-based spell-check programs.
Winkler says the state should think twice about caving to pressure from educators or parents complaining about a lack of communication and lower scores.
"Florida has witnessed impressive gains for student subgroups in recent years, particularly for its Hispanic students, and their uncompromising standards likely have something to do with that," she said.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.