A second auditor has found no irregularities in this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results despite concerns raised by several superintendents, the state's top education official said Wednesday.
"The FCAT test administered this last spring is one that mom and dad at home should have confidence in," Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said during a conference call.
The auditors found that the sharp drop in learning gains among fourth- and fifth-graders and their flat performance in reading did not fall outside historical trends for test scores, Smith said.
It does mean, however, that fewer schools will earn A and B grades this year once individual school results are released, possibly as early as Friday.
Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino said the decline in FCAT scores and school grades should not be surprising. "We've cut our resources. There is going to be an impact," she said. "It's going to get harder as each year goes on."
Frustrations over this year's FCAT results first surfaced in late spring when the results were several weeks late after problems with administering and grading the exams. The delay prompted the Florida Department of Education to fine testing contractor NCS Pearson nearly $15 million.
But new concerns arose once districts began scrutinizing their scores and zeroed in on the fourth- and fifth-grade fluctuations.
A group of five superintendents, including Hillsborough's MaryEllen Elia, called on the state to audit the exam for anomalies. Hillsborough saw a four-point drop in the number of fourth-graders reading at grade level. The school leaders from Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Leon counties joined Elia in raising concerns.
Smith agreed to conduct an audit, bringing in first one company and then a second one after complaints arose that the first company, Virginia-based HumRRO, was too closely aligned with NCS Pearson as a subcontractor on the FCAT.
The state then hired the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment in New Hampshire. The center focused on reviewing the design of the test itself and determining the validity of the FCAT, with a particular focus on Grades 3, 4, and 5 reading and mathematics for 2007 through 2010.
Last week, state K-12 chancellor Frances Haithcock said initial results indicated that nothing was amiss. Elia and others expressed their doubts, and said they wanted to have the full report before reaching any conclusions.
This is not the first time Florida's FCAT results have been challenged. The department acknowledged botching the 2006 third-grade results.
That situation led to the creation of an oversight system that state officials had hoped would mark the end of FCAT problems.
During Wednesday's conference call, St. Lucie school superintendent Mike Lannon asked Smith whether the validation of the FCAT results didn't confirm criticisms that Florida schools had begun to slip.
Smith rejected that notion.
He said the audits show that Florida's testing system is valid, and that the gains this year simply were not as strong as in past years. Smith noted that other data indicate a closing in the student achievement gap among demographic groups.
"At end the end of the day, it is a clean bill of health," Smith said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.