Florida's FCAT is already tougher to take — and now it will be tougher to pass.
State education leaders on Monday unanimously approved raising the passing scores for all the levels of the annual reading and math exams. The change follows the state's move to FCAT 2.0, a new, more rigorous version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
A.K. Desai, a member of the Florida Board of Education, praised the increased benchmark as supporting students "in their reach to be globally competitive citizens."
"I must go on record that we are all, as board members, continuing to raise the bar for all students . . . including all the minorities," said Desai, of St. Petersburg. "We are not going to be falling for any soft bigotry of low expectations."
Many superintendents fought education commissioner Gerard Robinson's recommendation to up the 10th-grade reading score two points beyond what several panels of experts had proposed.
In setting the controversial new standard, Robinson singled out data provided by the Hillsborough school district that showed the score he proposed (245) was equivalent to an SAT score that colleges accept without requiring remediation (440). Hillsborough officials cooperated with his research because they had plenty of data available to see trends, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia never opposed Robinson's proposal, Cobbe added, finding it achievable.
The increase in the "cut" scores that determine if a student is proficient in a subject is the first in a decade.
A majority of state superintendents supported higher scores at the lower grade levels, saying the passing marks were misaligned since the start of the FCAT. Elementary scores were too low, making it look as if larger numbers of students were at grade level than was realistic, they said. But they also suggested the high school scores were too high, making it look as if kids became sudden failures on entering ninth grade.
"This was an opportunity to address that particular issue," said Sen. Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "They elected to go the other way."
Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who sat on one of the state's panels reviewing the scores, also expressed disappointment with the State Board. She said members had the chance to do it right, and at first it appeared they would do so.
Fiorentino praised the process of exploring the scores with hundreds of educators, using detailed testing research as a guide, and then following up with leaders of the business community, parents, superintendents, charter schools and colleges.
"For them to just pick arbitrary numbers without the data that everyone has done . . . concerns me," she said.
She added that it seemed unfair to change the end goal for students this year who had been working toward scores they knew. In the past, Fiorentino said, the state gave schools time to implement new initiatives.
Board member John Padget pointed out during Monday's meeting that students have several opportunities to pass that exam, which is first given in 10th grade.
"Students do have a chance to recover," said Padget, a former Monroe County schools superintendent. "It's up to everybody to help them recover and be a high school graduate."
Board members thanked their department experts for finding what they considered a proper test score to move ahead with the new state standards. Vice chairman Roberto Martinez also pointedly praised Jeb Bush and his foundation for "forcing us to take a hard look at this."
Bush and the foundation pushed the board to increase the high school passing scores despite the near unanimous support in other circles for a lower number. The board, which is populated with several Bush supporters, including two former chiefs of staff, took that lead.
Montford stressed that thousands more students will fail the exam because of the decision. That will have dire consequences on districts as they have to provide additional remediation for students, perhaps some who will not need it.
In turn, he continued, those teens will not be able to take electives, meaning schools might have to change their entire course offerings. The full effect remains unknown, Montford said.
He did not anticipate a big fight, though. Funding and time spent in school were bigger issues.
"That is not the way superintendents do it," he said. "As we do with everything else, we'll have to deal with it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.