FCAT validity questioned after scoring changes, lowered marks

FCAT scores can determine everything from teacher pay to housing prices, but frequently changing standards are causing some to question how valid the results actually are.

This year, state education officials raised the cutoff scores required for reading and math proficiency on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. As a result, third-grade scores showed big drops from last year. State education officials also toughened the writing standards this year, but when the results were abysmal, they lowered the required proficiency level.

"It's a lot easier to hit a target when you know what it is," said Joe Schneider, principal at Galaxy Elementary School in Boynton Beach .

Gerard Robinson, commissioner for the state Department of Education, said preliminary data show there will be 108 F-rated schools this year, up from 38 last year. About 1,600 schools received A's last year, and Robinson said that number will drop, although he didn't have exact figures.

In addition to the tougher tests, this year the scores of special education students and some students whose native language is not English will also be counted, which could lower school grades.

Although the scores are lower, the stakes keep getting higher. Teacher pay will soon be tied to how well students perform on standardized tests. School grades, which are based mostly on FCAT scores, have a big impact on schools and their surrounding neighborhoods. For example, families often consider school grades when deciding where to buy a house, experts say.

"Clearly, there has to be a dramatic look at how the FCAT is applied," said John Tarka, an administrator with the Broward Teachers Union. "They keep changing the standards and expectations without proper notice, and it's very, very frustrating."

Robinson said the state is trying to increase the rigor of the tests so that more students will be prepared for college. But he understands that when the standards change, it causes confusion for parents and educators about whether students are performing better, worse or the same.

"We now have a harder test assessment," he said. "Last year, we had more kids who were proficient on a test that was less rigorous."

The confusion over the changing standards prompted the state to adjust last year's third-grade scores on its website. Last year, the state reported that 72 percent of third-graders were proficient on the reading FCAT, but now the website lists the figure as 57 percent and says 56 percent are proficient this year.

Robinson said the state "retrofitted" last year's scores, using this year's higher standard, so that schools and parents could have a more accurate year-to-year comparison.

What many found harder to understand was why the state Board of Education lowered the cutoff score for writing after the results had already come in. The scores showed that the number of students getting a 4 or better on a 6-point scale had dropped from 81 percent to 27 percent as a result of stricter grading criteria that gave more weight to spelling and punctuation. The board changed the cutoff score to a 3 in May, so that writing scores wouldn't hurt school grades

"It's unfathomable to me that the state of Florida didn't know before May 11 that this was going to be a disaster," said Mark Halpert, a Boca Raton parent who founded the Florida Advocacy Coalition of Learning Disabilities.

Robinson said the drop was lower than anticipated, and the department probably didn't effectively communicate the tougher grading criteria with schools before the tests.

The FCAT will disappear during the 2014-15 school year, but it will be replaced by a more rigorous high-stakes test in an initiative known as "Common Core State Standards" that Florida and most other states have joined. Robinson said the state decided to raise the FCAT standards now so that schools would be better prepared for the national tests.

Anti-FCAT sentiment has been growing in recent weeks, with the Broward County School Board passing a resolution Wednesday that opposes high-stakes testing. The Palm Beach County School District passed a similar resolution last week. They said that the test isn't an accurate reflection of how students perform and that it creates too much stress.

Robinson said he understands that the FCAT is stressful for some, but so are the SAT and ACT, which have long been accepted requirements for college admission. He said FCAT standards remained consistent for a decade and there was solid improvement in student performance. Graduation rates are up and more students are taking advanced placement tests, he said.

"Our system is not free of anxiety," Robinson said. "But I'd say it's more free of failure than it was a decade ago."

stravis@tribune.com or 561-243-6637 or 954-425-1421


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