State flags FCAT writing exam at Pasco's Schrader Elementary

BAYONET POINT — Schrader Elementary was one of the last places Pasco school district officials would have thought to look for efforts to teach students to game the FCAT writing exam.

"That school setting uses really good curriculum models," Rachel Powers, the district's supervisor of elementary reading and language arts, said of A-rated Schrader. "They have a good training program."

Yet when reviewing Schrader's fourth-grade FCAT essays this spring, test scorers saw a pattern among the responses that led them to suspect the school had given students a formula to follow. Victoria Ash, chief of the state's Bureau of K-12 Assessment, notified the Pasco school district last week of the discovery.

Forty-nine schools in 12 counties got similar letters from Ash.

"It's not technically cheating," Florida Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler said. "It's just not a preferred instructional practice. If it's not original work, it's not instruction they need to become better writers."

Teaching students a structure for organizing their essays is fine. The problem emerges when students use contrived phrases or examples that seem more geared to winning FCAT points than expressing the students' own thoughts.

At Schrader, at least three students' essays mentioned the idea of being rewarded for following the rules by receiving a trip to a theme park, state officials said. Their use of the same example raised a red flag.

Template writing never has been encouraged in Pasco schools, Powers said. In fact, she added, all schools received warnings last year to avoid the method after state officials announced their plan to crack down on what have become known as "poof!" essays, referring to a phrase that repeatedly popped up in several writing samples at certain Florida schools in 2008.

Still, Powers added, the temptation can be great, particularly for teachers who struggle with reluctant writers. Giving them a hook can help get them started, she said.

Plus, Powers added, "I think the state assessment in the past has rewarded template writing, because students can score well" with it.

For now, the state has no penalty attached to template writing. Ash wrote in her letter to the district that discussions are under way to determine "appropriate consequences" going forward.

Districts have gotten word, though, that student scores will not be penalized.

The state provided Pasco with a CD containing all the Schrader students' essays, along with the encouragement to review it and the recommendation to "address the issue as you feel necessary."

Schrader principal Mary Ellen Stelnicki and assistant principal Erika Tonello were at a conference and not available for comment.

Peggy Jones, Pasco's director of assessment, said she has begun analyzing the responses for patterns. The next step, she said, will be to evaluate the possible sources.

"This is not something where a teacher stood up in front of a room and said, 'Here's a prompt. Let me teach you how to write to it,' " Jones said.

The source of the issue matters, she said, because the ability to write and summarize crosses all subjects and is a key indicator of whether a student is learning. Students must be able to write original material based on questions asked, and not just regurgitate rote material, she added.

"We plan to figure out what happened so it doesn't happen again, anywhere," Jones said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

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State flags FCAT writing exam at Pasco's Schrader Elementary 07/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 21, 2009 9:29pm]

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