After conceding that poor communication with teachers could have contributed to an unprecedented drop in writing scores statewide, the state Board of Education voted Tuesday to lower the passing mark for the test.
But Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson defended the decision against critics who said it was a quick fix for bad test results. He said changing from a 4 to a 3 (out of 6) on the test simply "corrected the process."
"The results still stand," he said.
Just 27 percent of fourth-graders statewide earned a 4 or better on the writing FCAT, a steep decline from last year's 81 percent. Eighth- and 10th-graders had similar drops.
The news sparked widespread concern and a dramatic response, with more than 800 parents, teachers and school officials dialing into an emergency conference call held Tuesday by the state board. An earlier estimate of participants was 500.
During more than an hour of public comment, parents and teachers criticized the amount of testing that occurs in Florida, the effect test results can have on students and how prepared teachers were for changes to this year's writing test.
Deborah Van Pelt, a writing resource teacher at Leto High School in Hillsborough who wasn't on the call, said the decline in writing scores wasn't a surprise. But no one expected such a huge decrease, she said.
"Nobody knew how to anticipate the scoring. We knew there were tougher standards but we didn't know just how much," she said.
Switching to a 3 puts scores on par with last year's results. Results for schools and districts could be released by the end of the week, state officials said.
Robinson acknowledged Tuesday that teachers weren't adequately prepared for how strictly the tests were going to be graded this year and said he "realized that overnight students didn't just become bad writers."
But Robinson also warned Tuesday that substantial declines were coming for scores on the state's high-stakes reading and math tests. Third-graders must pass the reading FCAT to be promoted, and high school students must pass the reading and math FCAT to graduate.
"I can tell you there's going to be a big wake-up moment," Robinson said.
Some state leaders expressed concern about the writing results.
In a prepared statement, Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, said, "This major blunder by the Department of Education in changing the FCAT without adequate notice to school boards, teachers, parents and students underscores once again the dangers inherent in relying on one single — and obviously flawed — test to measure learning progress."
The state board said they wanted to hold schools "harmless" and give state officials a chance to better explain the writing changes to teachers and parents.
But board members emphasized that the decision wasn't a retreat from the state's increasing accountability measures. They will decide in the fall what the proficient standard will be for next year's writing test.
"I think the 3.0, for what we have done this year, is not lowering the standards," said board chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan of Hillsborough County.
Several parents told board members that students are being tested too much.
Meg Sload, a parent in Pasco County, said testing was sucking the joy of learning out of students.
"Students are tested, to me, a ridiculous amount," she said.
Robinson praised the state board's decision, saying it was a step for "continual improvement." He defended the state's accountability measures and said "some people simply do not like testing."
Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for Hillsborough County schools, said the state board made the right decision.
"Nobody intended for the scores to drop the way they dropped. They did the right thing, the stakes are high for students and teachers," he said.
This year, the state reverted to using two scorers per test — after switching to one a couple years ago to save money — and asked scorers to grade essays more strictly, with an eye to punctuation, grammar and the quality of word choice and relevance.
Robinson said that contributed to the dramatic drop in scores.
Holly Wallace, a Polk County fourth-grade writing teacher, was one of several teachers who told the state board that they did not feel prepared to teach their students with the new FCAT writing scoring standards.
"We literally did not receive much information at all," she said.
Robinson said the state Department of Education would conduct an internal review of the writing results. An outside auditor also would review scores as part of its routine evaluation of the state's testing practices.
The state also will consider whether to give students more time on the test. Students now have 45 minutes to write their essays; some teachers suggested that students could use extra time to correct grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes.
Robinson said his biggest lesson from the decline in test scores was simple: "That communication matters."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com or (727)-893-8846.