Novel Idea: Florida Gets Serious About FCAT Writing
After years of hyper-inflated essay scores, state admits to 'leniency' in grading
Around the State
After years of inexplicably large gaps between low reading results and sky-high writing scores, the Florida Department of Education admits to overly lenient grading of essays and says it is tightening standards.
A series of Sunshine State News reports (click here and here) highlighted what appeared to be grossly inflated scores on the FCAT writing exam taken annually by fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders.
Department of Education officials ritually applauded the essay results, which this year showed more than three-quarters of students performing at proficient levels or higher.
“Our educators continue to rise to the occasion, answering the call of increased expectations for our students to ensure they are leaving school ready for the next step,” gushed then-Education Commissioner Eric Smith in May.
By contrast, fewer than 40 percent of Florida's elementary and middle-school students rated proficient in reading. By ninth-grade, reading proficiency fell to a dismal 20 percent.
In response to Sunshine State News' inquiries about the disconnect, state education officials repeatedly 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 scorers of the writing exam weren't marking students down for such niggling details as spelling, grammar or punctuation.
A student's failure to make logical arguments backed up by relevant details also got a pass, we're now told.
All of which begs the obvious question: What were they grading?
Beginning next year, the Department of Education says it will get serious about tagging such fundamental deficiencies, and factoring them into the scoring.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that the shift comes as Florida prepares for national academic standards, set to be in place in 2013, and new standardized tests a year later.
Under the new grading system, there will be "increased attention to the correct use of standard English conventions," including spelling, grammar and punctuation, DOE stated in a memo to school districts.
In the department's first direct admission of soft grading, Deputy Commissioner Kris Ellington acknowledged, "Scoring of this element in the past has been applied with leniency."
But, significantly, DOE said the testing company, NCS Pearson Inc., will not be paid to add a second scorer for the writing exams. Due to budget cuts, essays have had just one reader in recent years, and education researchers told Sunshine State News that single-reader exams generally produce inflated scores.
The Buros Center for Testing, of Lincoln, Neb., said no "authoritative source" considered using just one scorer to be good enough.
Still unanswered is how tighter scoring on the written exam will affect overall school grades. To this point, plumped-up writing scores have helped to partially offset mediocre reading results and lift marginal campuses out of the failing range.
This is an opinion column by Kenric Ward. Contact Kenric at email@example.com or at (772) 559-4719.