Plummeting FCAT writing scores have led to a renewed round of criticisms against Florida's ongoing effort to ramp up its education accountability and testing program.
Preliminary results released Monday indicate that just 27 percent of fourth-graders earned a passing score of 4.0 or better (out of 6) on the writing test. A year ago, 81 percent scored 4.0 or better. The outcomes were similar for eighth- and 10th-graders.
"This is exactly what we have said would happen," said Summer Romagnoli, spokeswoman for the Pasco County School District. "The game has changed. The state has changed the measure by which they determine if children are successful."
The state Board of Education called an emergency session for this morning to consider changing the rules yet again, and the steep drop prompted Gov. Rick Scott to weigh in.
"The significant contrast in this year's writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results," Scott said in a written statement.
On Monday, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson proposed reducing the FCAT writing passing score from 4.0 to 3.5. Under that standard, 48 percent of fourth-graders would have passed the test with a 3.5 or better, along with 52 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of 10th-graders.
While the writing test is factored into schools grades, it is typically considered the easiest and the one with the fewest consequences for individual students. But some fear it is an indicator of what's to come with other high stakes tests: third-graders must pass reading or its equivalent to move on, and 10th-graders must pass reading and math to graduate.
Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando parent activist who has sued the state over education funding issues, suggested the massive drop in student writing results had less to do with actual performance than with officials bent on getting results and setting the rules accordingly.
"What did they think was going to happen?" Oropeza said, referring to state officials' several decisions to change tests and scoring methods midway through an academic year.
And if state officials say, as they have in the past, that the results of prior years were artificially high and these are the real ones, she said, "then Florida has got a bigger problem than what we are looking at today."
Board vice chairman Roberto Martinez of Miami-Dade County said he wanted to see much more information before settling on the proper path. The Department of Education staff did not raise this issue as a concern when presenting other school grading changes to the board less than a week ago.
Martinez, lately a critic of Robinson's performance, said he supports the idea of "raising the bar" when it comes to setting student expectations. But in doing so, he continued, the state must be prudent to make sure it hasn't set children up for failure or shocked the system.
"This needs to be done intelligently," Martinez said. "I would not be surprised if this would be the beginning of some adjustments."
Some of the FCAT changes are meant to raise expectations as Florida joins a coalition of states moving toward more common — and rigorous — standards.
State Sen. David Simmons, the Republican chairman of the Senate education appropriations panel, said the scores validate the concerns he had that the state board was moving too fast in implementing new FCAT scoring standards. Simmons had moved during session to hold funding for some of the changes, but backed off amid Gov. Scott's promises that the issue would be dealt with administratively.
"Simply raising the bar and in so doing labeling someone a failure isn't the correct way to achieve the results that we want," said Simmons, who repeated his support for increasing standards. "The way they are doing it is not the right way to do it."
Oropeza contended that despite years of changes in Florida's education system, all aimed at getting better results, the opposite has occurred. Yet the state continues to spend millions on its testing regimen.
"These scores are proof that these reforms are an unmitigated disaster," Oropeza said.
Pinellas schools superintendent John Stewart said he would be more concerned if he believed in the validity of the FCAT writing test.
"It's all subjective," Stewart said. "You cannot get a fair and accurate way of scoring how well a student writes."
It still counts, though.
Sharon Wilson, assistant principal for curriculum at Azalea Elementary School in Pinellas County, said she hoped that the writing results won't be reflected in children's FCAT reading scores, too. She said it would have been nice if teachers had been given more time to get ready for all the FCAT changes.
"If you're going to change the expectations, I think children should be given the opportunity to prepare," Wilson said.
At least, some educators noted, the state board approved a proposal last week to protect schools from major swings in their state grades by limiting any drop to one letter grade this year.
"That's the only saving grace in all of this," said Todd Cluff, principal of Sand Pine Elementary in Pasco County.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. Visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.