A historic dive in fifth-grade FCAT scores has elementary school principals across Florida questioning the results.
State education officials say they triple-checked the results released this week that showed a 5 percent drop in fifth grade reading scores. They had an independent consultant check, too. No problems were found.
But Pinellas and Hillsborough school officials are asking the state to check again, a telling sign about the FCAT's cloudy credibility.
Fresh in their minds: last year's disclosure that the state had botched one of the FCAT tests in 2006, a mistake that overstated the same group of students achievements in the third grade.
"You always know you can have a tire blow out on the interstate," Hillsborough testing director John Hilderbrand said Wednesday. "But until it happens, you don't think it's something that will happen to you."
The latest round of head-scratching began Tuesday, when statewide test scores released by the state Department of Education showed students performing better in every grade and subject except one: fifth-grade reading.
Fifth-grade scores have never dropped since the state began giving the test in 2001. And now the number of kids reading at grade level or above had fallen 5 percent — a substantial dip that has been matched only once before in the 2006 fourth-grade reading results.
Around Tampa Bay, more than 200 schools saw their fifth-grade reading scores drop. More than 60 dropped by 10 percent or more. At stake for all of them: school grades, which hinge on FCAT scores and help define a school's reputation.
At Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater, scores plummeted 22 percent.
Principal Delores Milton said she bored deep into the data Wednesday, but could find no rhyme or reason.
"We try not to make excuses," Milton said. "But this was very unexpected. The only other thing at this point is to ask whether or not there's something wrong with the test."
But there's not, Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said Tuesday.
"This kind of fluctuation is within bounds, is relatively normal," he told reporters.
The state spends tens of millions of dollars developing and scoring the FCAT. Every question is run through a gantlet of committees that checks them for accuracy and fairness.
After the department revealed that scores on the third-grade reading test in 2006 had been inflated by human error, it named a high-profile panel to meet in public, review what went wrong and prod and poke the state's entire testing apparatus for fault lines. It also hired a highly regarded testing center — the Buros Center at the University of Nebraska — to review the 2006 test and every other FCAT used since 2001.
The center looked at all of this year's tests, too, including the fifth-grade reading test, which consists entirely of multiple-choice questions. Its conclusion: No problems.
There continued to be speculation Wednesday that the flawed 2006 test may have led to this year's question mark, given that some of the third-graders who took the 2006 test may have been promoted to fourth grade by mistake — and later become part of this year's fifth-grade class.
But Smith said the state looked into that and concluded the numbers aren't statistically significant.
Kurt Geisinger, executive director of the Buros Center, said the results do not look unusual to him.
He likened the normal variation of scores to getting on the scale and seeing that one day you've lost some weight, and the next day you've gained some. He said Floridians should have faith in the FCAT testing system.
Using standardized tests to track student progress over time is "the best technique we have, but it is still imperfect," he said. "And I think (Florida education officials) are taking steps to make it more and more perfect, frankly."
It's clear from this week's reaction that some are not convinced. District officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough say they registered their concerns with the state Education Department and will be taking an especially close look at the scores in the days and weeks ahead.
Department officials "swear that nothing's wrong with the test, but I'm not willing to let this go," said Pamela Moore, elementary reading supervisor for Pinellas schools.
Department spokesman Tom Butler said the department had not gotten any complaints as of Wednesday afternoon. But he also said state education officials needed to keep up their communication efforts to make sure districts understand what checks and balances are now in place.
"We have to communicate that we've done all this," he said.
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.