Several Florida school superintendents have such strong doubts about this year's FCAT writing results that they're planning to double-check student test answers when the districts get them later this summer.
The scores, which will play a key role in school grades, instantly generated concerns among teachers who saw children with strong writing skills getting poor marks. Many high-performing schools were surprised to see big dips in their passing rates.
Leaders from Pasco, Seminole and Monroe counties are among those who have questioned publicly whether something is amiss. Hillsborough officials, generally pleased with their results, have not joined in.
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego took his concerns to the state. He sent a strongly worded letter to education commissioner Pam Stewart urging her department to take a closer look.
Grego noted, as one of many examples, that nine in 10 A-rated elementary schools in Pinellas saw double-digit declines in their FCAT writing performance this year.
"Because we recognize that you, too, value the hard work of both teachers and students, we are confident you will take action and examine these issues not only for Pinellas, but for all students with assessments that do not appear to measure what they are designed to measure," he wrote.
Stewart's response, which Grego received late Tuesday, did nothing to salve the discontent. She said the scoring was fine.
She described the process, saying "numerous measures are in place to ensure scoring accuracy and consistency." She then offered two pages of details, followed by comments from an outside expert praising scorer training.
To close, the commissioner told Grego he could follow the state's normal process to challenge specific scores later this summer, when districts receive images of the student responses on CDs.
Grego called Stewart's letter a "company response," and said he intended to follow her advice. Other superintendents did, too.
State Sen. Bill Montford, executive director of the state superintendents association, said a broad cross section of district leaders brought up the issue at the group's regular meeting last month. He said he expected to see districts appeal as they take a deeper look at the results.
"With so much riding on the scores … I would be disappointed if superintendents and the commissioner were not concerned," Montford said.
Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning, who first raised a red flag over the scores, suggested Stewart was justifying the state's process rather than considering district questions.
"Their emphasis is on the scorers," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson added. "My emphasis is on my students and my teachers. … I continue to hear from my teachers that scores students received on that specific writing prompt are not reflective of their day-to-day performance."
Monroe County also is expected to take a closer look at its student writing responses, superintendent Mark Porter said. "There seems to be an inconsistency between what we would call our leading indicators and the FCAT results."
After the district's internal evaluation, he added, "We still believe there may be a legitimate basis for a complaint of some type."
Grego, a former state K-12 chancellor, said the Department of Education owes it to students, educators, parents and the community to maintain confidence in the system. That means exploring whether schools are teaching the right skills, the tests are assessing the proper standards and the graders are appropriately scoring each response, he said.
The scores impact school grades, which in turn influence some funding, staffing and instruction decisions. In recent years, the writing scores have loomed large.
In 2012, the State Board of Education lowered the passing score as performance plummeted, then raised the score a year later, creating big gaps in passing rates as used in the grading formula. The moves brought criticism that school accountability had become a moving target.
"We want to raise these questions for the sole purpose of improvement," Grego said. "I want the state accountability system to work."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]