WESLEY CHAPEL — Alan Sourk thought his son had finally passed his exit-level high school reading test.
The Wiregrass Ranch High School junior scored a 20 on the ACT reading test in December. That was two points above the mark listed on state documents as an acceptable replacement score for the FCAT graduation requirement.
He excitedly returned to school in January, asking his guidance counselor to finally let him out of the remedial reading course that had kept him out of elective classes. And that's when he learned, as Sourk put it, that "it's possible the passing score of 20 might not be passing anymore."
The state had made the FCAT harder during the past year. But Department of Education officials had not calculated the "concordant" scores for the ACT and SAT, which students can take in place of the FCAT to satisfy that graduation requirement.
The new cutoff scores for the ACT and SAT won't be available until the fall.
So instead of scratching the test off their graduation to-do list, thousands of juniors across Florida had to recommit themselves to another semester of remediation and another stab at the FCAT.
"It is frustrating for parents and students," said Bill Lawrence, Pinellas County associate superintendent for teaching and learning. "We get similar calls from them on a regular basis."
For years, Florida high school students have been allowed to use SAT and ACT results to meet the state's exit test graduation requirements. It's been a popular alternative for teens who struggle with the FCAT, and most schools tout the option.
"We do certainly talk with our students about the concordant score," said Brenda Grasso, principal of Steinbrenner High School in northern Hillsborough County. "We encourage them to take that ACT and SAT."
But when the state changes the standards, kids can get squeezed.
Three years ago, the state also recalibrated the scores to better connect the ACT and SAT results to the FCAT. It proposed putting the revisions in place immediately in November 2009, for anyone in the class of 2011 or beyond.
Pasco High School principal Pat Reedy complained to then-commissioner Eric Smith that the change wasn't fair to students who already achieved the standard in place at the time. Within days, Smith issued a memo grandfathering in the students who met the mark by a date certain.
The Florida Organization of Instructional Leaders is seeking a similar resolution again.
"It is our belief that these students may be penalized as a result of the lack of concordant scores," FOIL president Scott Fritz wrote to interim education commissioner Pam Stewart. "Without an interim solution, the number of students potentially impacted could be staggering."
No numbers of potentially affected juniors this year were available. But in 2011-12, 70,826 juniors had not passed the FCAT reading exam before the test was offered in the spring.
So far, the state has not shown any flexibility. Stewart wrote to Fritz in a Dec. 28 letter that state law ties the department's hands, because it requires the use of testing data that is not yet available to set the linked set of scores.
"There are no provisions in law for establishing temporary concordant scores or for allowing students to be grandfathered in to use concordant scores established for a prior cohort of students," Stewart wrote.
The department will set the scores "as soon as possible," she added, thanking Fritz for sharing his concerns.
A department spokeswoman said Tuesday that researchers met this week to continue looking at the issue, but that the state still does not have enough student data to align the scores.
That's cold comfort for the Sourk family, where graduation approaches and the rules seem to be changing beneath their feet. If the state was going to adjust passing scores, Sourk said, it should have announced all the passing levels at the same time. And new standards shouldn't be applied after the fact, he said.
Juniors who passed the FCAT as sophomores don't have to worry about the new rules, he said. Why should those who passed the ACT or SAT in time?
"He's less than three semesters away from trying to graduate," Sourk said of his son, whose first name he asked not be published. "It's not like he's got a lot of time to figure this out. … My son was excited he was able to check that off. He's frustrated because it's already difficult for him. He's caught in a bureaucratic (mess). … It's something that could be avoided if these guys could get their act together."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.