Scroll below for facts about the FCAT
Students in grades three through 10 today begin taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading and math. Fifth- and eighth-graders also take FCAT science.
Later this month through May, middle and high school students begin end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry, biology, history and civics. Students must pass end-of-course exams to get high school credit needed for graduation.
Third-graders must pass FCAT reading or risk retention. FCAT scores and student improvement make up half of a teacher's annual evaluation.
Last school year, districts throughout the state voiced concerns when the state raised the score needed to pass the FCAT halfway through the school year. In December 2011, the state adopted new passing scores for the first time in a decade after FCAT's math and reading sections were revised to meet more rigorous academic standards.
Because of the changes to the test and tougher grading scale, educators statewide feared student scores and school grades would drop drastically.
Tracey Miller, executive director of Instructional Services for the Martin County School District, said school grades didn't drop as much as expected because the state put in safety nets, such as mandating that a school could only be lowered one letter grade. The passing score for FCAT Writing also was lowered in May because of a dramatic drop in scores.
The safety nets "really were a benefit to all schools," Miller said.
Miller and other Treasure Coast educators hope students fare better on the test this year.
"Historically, whenever we have had a change in assessments, we have seen decreases that are temporary, and then we see scores rebound," Miller said.
Treasure Coast officials say they hope their students are ready for the FCAT. Preparation for FCAT is a yearlong process in which educators say they try to build on student strengths and help struggling students improve with individualized instruction.
Martin continued to focus preparation on the standards students will be required to know for the FCAT, Miller said.
"This has been going on all year. We work all year to best prepare students," Miller said.
Throughout the school year, districts use locally written benchmark tests based on state standards to see how well they are learning the material. Benchmark testing is a tool districts use to see how students are progressing on learning content they need to be successful on the FCAT.
"We certainly check the rigor to make sure our rigor matches the rigor of the FCAT," Miller said. When students struggle in certain areas, they get remediation immediately, she said.
St. Lucie County uses benchmark testing as "a diagnostic tool for teachers to measure individual student academic progress in the curriculum," district spokeswoman Janice Karst wrote in an email to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers.
"The tests, for which questions are developed locally with appropriate rigor, are not intended to be reflective of those that will appear on the FCAT, but rather are developed following the district's curriculum for formative and summative evaluation of student learning," Karst wrote in the email.
Some districts, such as Indian River County, also have included the more rigorous Common Core standards into classroom lessons. Common Core, which replaces the Florida Sunshine State Standards in 2014-2015, is a national set of standards designed to make students college- and career-ready. Common Core has been adopted by 45 states including Florida.
"We got on board right away," said Chris Kohlstedt, director of Assessment and Accountability for the Indian River County School District. Common Core is a new way of teaching, designed to help students learn a higher level of thinking, he said.
Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, the FCAT will be replaced with online standardized tests associated with the Common Core.
Q. What is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test?
A. The FCAT is an exam that measures student performance on the state's core curriculum in reading, math, science and writing.
Q. Who takes the FCAT?
A. Students in grades four, eight and 10 take FCAT Writing no earlier than the week of March 1. All public school students in grades three through 10 take the reading section and students in grades three through eight take the math section no earlier than the week of April 15. Students in grades five and eight also take the science FCAT and also take the test no earlier than the week of April 15.
Q. What do the results mean?
A. The test is used to determine whether third-graders can advance to fourth grade and whether high school seniors can graduate.
The state also gives schools grades based on student performance on the test. For high schools, FCAT results make up 50 percent of a school grade instead of 100 percent.
State legislation requires that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student
growth on tests like the FCAT.
Schools that improve a letter grade or maintain an A grade will receive $100 per student in school recognition money, which can go to faculty bonuses or school supplies.
Q. When did Florida start administering the FCAT?
A. Students first took the state-mandated test in 1998. Although FCAT is most closely associated with former Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican school-reform efforts, the exam was developed and first given to students during the administration of the late Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. In spring 2011, students took the reading and math portions of FCAT 2.0 for the first time and in spring 2012, fifth- and eighth-graders took the new Science FCAT 2.0.
Q. What FCAT tests are now computer-based and what tests will soon be computer-based?
A. In spring 2012, sixth-graders and sophomores took the reading FCAT on the computer. This spring, students in grades six, seven, nine and 10 are scheduled to take the reading FCAT on the computer and fifth-graders are scheduled to take the math FCAT on the computer.
Q. What's happening to the FCAT?
A. The controversial test's days are numbered. The state plans to retire FCAT math and reading exams by 2015 and replace them with new tests designed to meet new "common core" standards in those subjects. The new tests are being developed by a consortium of more than 20 states.
Participating McDonald's restaurants on the Treasure Coast are inviting students taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to partake in a free breakfast the first day of testing.
The breakfast offer will run from 6 to 8:30 a.m. April 15, and includes an Egg McMuffin, a choice of low-fat white milk or a small orange juice, and a package of apple slices.