Passing the FCAT is about to get harder.
The Florida Board of Education is poised to adopt higher scores on the annual high-stakes test for third- through 10th-graders, marking the first time in a decade new benchmarks have been set.
If the new standards are approved, many more third-graders likely would face retention, while many more high school students are projected to fail to meet the state's graduation requirement.
The percentage of 10th-graders passing the reading portion of the FCAT would fall from 60 percent to 52 percent if the new standards were applied to last year's results, according to state data.
The changes would take effect in the spring. That means current sophomores would have to meet a higher standard to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who is recommending the higher bar, said he was "confident the students and schools will rise to the challenge."
And the new, higher high school score "raises a new standard for a new Florida and a new era."
Robinson is recommending new scores for the high school FCAT reading exam that are two points higher than the levels supported by a majority of the state's superintendents.
Superintendents have said each point represents an additional 7,000 students statewide who would not pass the exam.
Robinson said he arrived at his proposed passing score after reviewing input from 300 educators, members of the public and Board of Education members at several workshops and sessions.
"We're putting students on a consistent path for college and careers, starting with elementary school," he said, noting that no one complained about proposed increases to the passing scores in the lower grades.
In Pinellas, school officials said the passing rate in reading for 10th-graders would drop from 59 percent to 52 percent. Almost 8,000 Pinellas 10th-graders take the reading FCAT each year so a decrease in the passing rate would mean about 550 to 600 students would now not pass.
The new scoring system is being changed to bring it in line with revisions made to the FCAT to meet new, more rigorous academic standards. The board is scheduled to take up Robinson's recommendations on Dec. 19.
The board's decision had been planned for early December. It was postponed, however, amid an increasingly heated debate about the actual number that would mean a passing score in ninth- and 10th-grade reading.
Superintendents long have called for the state to lower the score, contending it has been artificially high and creates the perception that high schools are performing worse than they are. Some of the state's leading proponents of changing the system in line with former Gov. Jeb Bush's education views argued that the scores should go up in order to hold students to an increasingly higher standard.
Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan said that Florida's demand for "high standards" had pushed the state's schools forward and that the high FCAT scores were part of that success.
But superintendents said the state had been asking too much of 10th-graders to pass the FCAT, while passing scores for the lower grades were in fact too low. They pointed to data showing that each year the percentages of elementary students passing the FCAT at proficient level or higher soared, while the high school passing rate hovered around one-third of students.
Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino, one of 12 superintendents who sat on one of the review panels, told her School Board on Tuesday that the issue is of huge concern for superintendents, and it should be critical for parents and children, too. Fiorentino supports increasing the scores in the lower grades but not in high school.
"If we tell a student they can read but yet they really can't, we've done a disservice to that child," Fiorentino said. "More than that, if we tell a child that they've failed but they really haven't . . . we've also done a terrible disservice."
And some worry that if thousands fewer Florida schoolchildren score at grade level on the test, it could lower school grades and possibly open the door for more students to take advantage of vouchers and other transfers from their assigned school.
Other state board of education members appear more cautious about changing the scores. Recent appointee Gary Chartrand said he supports rigor in the system but asked for data on how FCAT failure links to dropouts.
"I want to make sure we don't decimate kids who have a chance for a good future by setting the (passing) scores too high," Chartrand said.
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614.