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Pasco School District questioning fourth-graders' FCAT writing results

Pasco County School District officials are raising big questions with the state over their fourth-grade FCAT writing scores.

The results, assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said, don't jibe with teachers' expectations: They seem too low.

Thirty-seven of the district's 44 elementary schools, and all five charter schools, saw their percentages of students scoring proficient or better drop — more than half by 10 points or more. The overall district passing rate slid to 38 percent, down from 51 percent a year earlier.

Statewide, passage declined by just 4 points, to 57 percent.

"I was shocked when I saw the writing scores," Larson said Monday. "I cannot explain it."

The numbers matter because they're a big piece of the state's school grading system. In 2013, many schools blamed the writing results for their lower than expected grades.

The State Board of Education raised the passing score that year after lowering it in 2012, amid complaints that new changes to the marking guidelines would hurt schools unfairly. This year, the state did not change the scoring model or passing mark.

Fourth graders had to write an explanatory essay this year, instead of a narrative.

Larson said several Pasco teachers contacted her office to voice their uncertainties shortly after receiving individual student results on Friday.

"They were very concerned about inconsistencies," she said.

For example, one teacher of gifted children reported that a student who regularly earned high marks in writing did not pass the FCAT exam, while another who had not done as well got a nearly perfect score.

Usually solid schools saw major dips — Pine View Elementary, for example, fell from 60 percent passing to 29 percent — while the biggest improvement came at the district's most struggling school, Lacoochee Elementary, with a 26-point jump to 52 percent passing.

To follow up, the district plans to survey teachers about whether the FCAT outcomes tracked with data they had collected during the year. It also will ask whether they had enough curriculum support for writing instruction.

"If there is a problem with something we didn't do . . . then we own it," Larson said.

But she suspected something else was at play, perhaps a problem with the scorers. She noted that Pasco was not alone in its slide. Several other school districts also declined, including the state's traditional top performing St. Johns County.

Pinellas County saw devastating dips in fourth-grade writing scores as well. Of 84 elementary and charter schools with two years' worth of scores, more than half dropped 10 or more points. Several schools had 20- to 30-point drops.

Woodlawn Elementary, for instance, fell 36 percentage points this year, with just 30 percent of fourth-graders earning a 3.5 or above compared to 66 percent last year. Plumb Elementary had a 30-point drop.

Hillsborough County elementary schools, by contrast, showed mostly improved proficiency rates in the fourth-grade writing test and logged the highest passing rate in Florida.

Spokesman Joe Follick said the Florida Department of Education had received a call from Pasco but had little time to act upon it, given the weekend and the Memorial Day holiday.

Staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Pasco School District questioning fourth-graders' FCAT writing results 05/26/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014 8:12pm]
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