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SENATORS SUGGEST SUIT OVER BOTCHED '06 FCAT

Lawmakers questioned why state education officials haven't sought compensation from a vendor for a flawed standardized reading test that was used in 2006 to help rate schools and decide which children were promoted.

Third-graders made what appeared to be astounding progress on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. A year later, the Education Department said the scores were inflated because the exam had been too easy.

Since then, the department and its consultant, the University of Nebraska's Buros Center for Testing, have blamed the inflated scores on the placement of some questioned carried over from the prior year to maintain continuity. They were moved to the front of the test, where research has shown children do better.

Jay Pfeiffer, the department's director of accountability research and measurement, told the Senate's Education Pre-kindergarten-12th Grade Committee that Harcourt Assessment, which designed the test, and the department must share the blame.

"Not in the world we live in, but in the real world ... there are things that you can do like request a refund or sue them," said Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, agreed the state should "look for satisfaction."

Education Commissioner Eric Smith told the committee that he hasn't discussed that aspect of the testing problem since taking the job late last year.

"We're not done with this issue," Smith said. "We're going to be tough with any vendor that comes in and negotiates with us."

The state pays Harcourt, which recently was purchased by textbook publisher Pearson PLC, about $5-million annually for its FCAT work.

David Hakensen, a spokesman for Pearson's assessment and information group in Bloomington, Minn., said the company believes the cause remains inconclusive.

Buros Center director Kurt Geisinger told the committee that problems caused by moving so-called anchor questions are known by testing experts.

Pfeiffer also told the committee that education officials initially were blind to the problem because the 2006 third-graders were the first Florida class to participate in the Reading First for a full three years. The federal program is a pet project of President Bush's, whose brother, Jeb Bush, was then Florida's governor.

"We hoped and we expected to see improvement in their performance," Pfeiffer said. "When the test results came in they seemed to corroborate that hope."

It was dashed a year later when 2007 third-grade scores dropped well below the 2006 numbers.

Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, asked if the episode exposed the danger of relying so heavily on a single test.

"Most people in testing believe that there's too much weight being put on testing, to be very honest," Geisinger said.

Gaetz said the committee will develop legislation to broaden the factors that go into school grading.

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