Out of the blue, the FCAT has a new job: measuring the programs across the state that produce teachers.
And it is already waving a red flag at the University of South Florida.
For the first time, the state Department of Education has examined the effectiveness of rookie teachers from a wide variety of teacher preparation programs, using their students' scores on the math and reading portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2008. It determined what percentage of graduates from each program had 50 percent or more of their students make a year's worth of progress.
USF's College of Education — a huge pipeline for teachers in the Tampa Bay area — had 76 percent of its graduates reach that bar, putting it ninth among the 10 state university programs.
Florida International University in Miami topped the field at 85 percent. The University of West Florida in Pensacola was last at 70 percent.
The data shows "there's room for improvement," said Michael Stewart, USF's associate dean for educator preparation. "Nobody's happy with 76 (percent) and I don't think we'd happy with the low 80s either. We're going to look at what's causing that."
The education deans at Florida's universities first saw the analysis in June, but the report — still considered a draft — hasn't been made public until now.
State and university officials cautioned that the analysis was the first of its kind in Florida, so it's unclear how much the numbers may jump from year to year.
But it is a sign of things to come. Education colleges nationwide are garnering more scrutiny as school reform efforts look more and more at teacher quality. Last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan credited Louisiana for being the only state to track the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs — and said every other state should be following suit.
Florida now plans to crunch the numbers annually.
The first report's origins go back to 2006, when the state Board of Education required that a periodic review of teacher programs also include "program completers' impact on K-12 student learning." The Education Department gave education programs two years to get ready for the change.
"To their credit, the institutions have said, 'Can you please share this information?', " said Kathy Hebda, the department's deputy chancellor for educator quality. Their efforts at "continuous improvement can't be totally based on test scores … but this is a key piece of data."
The analysis looked at the graduates of every teacher preparation program in Florida, including those run by state universities, community colleges and private colleges, as well as alternative certification programs run by school districts. It was limited to those who teach reading/language arts and math in grades 4-10.
The total number reviewed was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000, Hebda said.
Using a statistical tool called a value table, the department also used FCAT scores to determine which rookies from each program were "high performing."
USF had 15 percent of its graduates in that category, putting it at No. 6 among state university programs. The USF numbers include students from USF St. Petersburg, which has its own education college and is separately accredited.
FIU again led the pack, with 23 percent. Florida A&M University was last with 7 percent.
When the education deans saw the numbers, "I think they were kind of disappointed in their results and surprised that we did so well," said Adriana McEachern, associate dean of the education college at Florida International.
McEachern said credit should go to the college's nationally recognized programs in reading and elementary education. But she also said it was too early to cheer.
The Education Department is currently processing the 2008-09 data. It also plans to analyze the results for out-of-state teachers.
Stewart, the USF associate dean, said the faculty is "embracing" the FCAT data to help drive improvement, but also keeping it in context. The college assesses its graduates with a wide array of information.
FCAT scores are just one of "many things that determine the worth of a college," he said. But, he also said, "you'd always like to be at the top. There's no question about that."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.