As a new school year gets under way, some Florida educators are bemoaning the lower grades their campuses received from the state.
Nearly 400 previously "A"-rated schools lost their bragging rights and 39 middle schools were downgraded as well, due to declining FCAT scores.
It could have been worse.
If not for disproportionately high scores on the FCAT writing exams in grades 4 and 8, many more schools would have tumbled down the grading curve.
While statewide passage rates on the reading test averaged 72 percent in 4th-grade and a mediocre 55 percent in 8th-grade, 94 percent of 4th-graders and an improbable 96 percent of 8th-graders passed the writing exam.
The glaring disconnect between reading and writing scores has caught the eye of education researchers across the country.
"The (writing) scores are obviously higher than they should be. It's completely plausible that we're seeing grade inflation here," said Amber Winkler, research director at the Thomas Fordham Institute in New York.
Concerns about the scores were compounded when the state's testing contractor, NCS Pearson Inc., was late in reporting results and faced potential fines for its tardiness. The Florida Department of Education also jiggered the system by reducing the number of writing-test readers from two to one.
DOE officials said halving essay readers was done forreasons of economy.
"It was a human-resource cost issue," Kris Ellington, assistant director of assessment, explained.
Pearson, which has a $254 million state contract to administer FCAT exams, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, said scaling back readers undermines the validity of an already-subjective exam.
"Having one reader reduces objectivity even more and exacerbates grade inflation. (Readers) are aware it's all on them, so they're reluctant to fail people," Greene said.
Ellington said the state ordered "an extra validity study on scoring," but while an outside testing center contracted by the DOE to verify the scores called them "adequate," it cautioned officials against using scores to make decisions about individual students.
The Buros Center for Testing, of Lincoln, Neb., said no "authoritative source" considered using just one scorer to be good enough.
Unlike the high-stakes reading exams, poor scores on the writing test are not used to hold individual students back a grade.
Scoring aside, researchers say the Florida writing exam itself lacks rigor.
"In a review of the standards, we found that every type of writing is given equal emphasis. Writing travel directions is given the same weight as persuasive essay," Fordham's Winkler observed.
"Our reviewer dinged Florida pretty hard for that."
Citing examples of topics given to students, Winkler said 4th-graders were asked to write a two-page essay about a day some 4th-grade students made lunch for their school. She said the 8th-grade essayists were to describe the biggest change students make in coming from elementary school.
Such descriptive exercises produce high scores, Winkler said, "but the prompts (topics) aren't that rigorous."
Ellington defended the essay standards, noting that Florida students perform well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the ACT college-entrance exam writing test.
That may be damning with faint praise. A report released last month found that fewer than a quarter of 2010 U.S. high school graduates taking the ACT possessed the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level courses.
Less than 30 percent of Florida high school grads met at least three of the four college-readiness benchmarks, ACT said.
Yet Florida's 4th- and 8th-grade FCAT writing scores remain consistently in the 90 percent range.
The sky-high writing results have produced statistical oddities across the state.
Some Palm Beach County schools, for example, reported 100 percent of students passing the writing battery, but at one of those campuses only 23 percent of 10th-graders passed their reading test.
At a K-8 campus in St. Lucie County, 4th- and 8th-grade classrooms posted passing rates of 94 percent across the board. Previously an "A" school, the campus fell to a "B," based on its poor performance in reading and math.
Without a lift from the writing exam, the school likely would have fallen to a "C."
That school was not alone.
A Sunshine State News sampling of school grades statewide calculated that 228 campuses were in the bottom 10 points of their respective grade ranges.
Without their 90-percent-plus passage rates on writing, those schools -- and perhaps many more -- would have dropped at least one letter grade.
Education officials say that standards for the FCAT writing exam have not changed since 1993, but that change is coming ... eventually.
When the state signed on last month to new federal Common Core Standards, it agreed to revamp and update its testing program by 2014. That could bring more rigor, and produce scores that are more in line with reading results.
But for the next three years, the DOE says it plans to stick with the same writing test and procedures. The 2010-2011 test will be given in February.
Greene said states across the country wrestle with writing exams.
"We have very good standardized tests for reading and math. Not for writing," he said.
Ironically, Pearson administers an objective writing component in its teacher-qualification exam. Through a series of multiple-choice questions, test-takers are asked to identify problems with syntax, vocabulary and other writing styles.
Ellington said the state used such fill-in-the-bubble writing measurements in the past -- even making passage a requirement for high school graduation. But that benchmark, too, was dropped because of cost considerations.
"It was part of the paring back. We've been ordered to save money in recent years," she said.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or (772) 801-5341.