The superintendents of Hillsborough County and four other large school districts said Monday they have doubts about the accuracy of this year's FCAT results and want a state investigation.
The superintendents are concerned about a sharp drop in the number of students making learning gains, especially on the reading test. Elementary schools are seeing the most problems.
Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith said Monday afternoon that he stood by the results, which an independent testing expert had reviewed. But he has asked another examiner to look at the concerns the districts outlined in a letter they sent him earlier Monday.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is the foundation of the state's accountability system, driving curriculum, student placement, school grades and millions in reward dollars.
"We wholeheartedly want to preserve its integrity. But in fairness to students and teachers, we feel that the state must conduct a thorough review of the year's scores, which cannot be explained by natural fluctuations," Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "For school accountability to work, it is essential that parents, teachers and the public, as well as school superintendents, have confidence in the fairness and accuracy of the test results."
Elia co-signed the letter with the superintendents in Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Leon counties, a group representing about 40 percent of the students in Florida.
Elia also called for the state to hold off on releasing school grades. State education officials said they did not have a release date but did not expect the review process to hold up school grades.
In Hillsborough, the results could lead to a surge in elementary schools being penalized for not having enough students showing progress year over year, particularly among their lowest performers.
But Florida's education commissioner saw the drop as the part of the evolution of school accountability.
"Our districts have done a tremendous job over the years in increasing the overall level of achievement" in the lowest-performing students, Smith said. "As expected, as that achievement rises, it becomes more difficult to reproduce that success year after year. This is the hurdle we are now facing."
Noting that he takes the superintendents' concerns seriously, Smith has requested an audit focusing on these students by a group called HumRRO, or Human Resources Research Organization.
This year's FCAT results were weeks late, after testing contractor NCS Pearson experienced problems administering and grading the exams. The state already has fined Pearson more than $3 million - and it may be liable for nearly $12 million more.
Elia called Smith to alert him to a problem with the fourth- and fifth-grade scores as soon as she saw the results about two weeks ago. They showed a four-point drop in the number of Hillsborough fourth-graders reading at grade level, to 68 percent.
Large districts around the state began swapping notes and found they had similar issues.
In the Tampa Bay area, other districts have not yet analyzed the FCAT data as closely at Hillsborough.
Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen said she wasn't immediately aware of any eyebrow-raising issues. The district will review the data more closely this week.
Still, Janssen supported the call to halt the grades while the matter is being resolved.
"I think we have to delay it," she said. "It has to be right when it comes out."
Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino also was not involved with the conversations leading up to the Hillsborough letter.
Yet principals like Brooksville Elementary's Mary LeDoux suspected something was amiss. LeDoux saw her high-performing school's precipitous drop in fourth-grade reading scores. She fears that her school, which has earned an A the last five years, could drop to a C based on this year's scores.
"When I saw the drop, I just kept saying, I wonder how valid these scores are," said LeDoux, who has since determined that the reading results of six fifth-graders are missing.
If something is wrong with the FCAT, it wouldn't be the first time.
The Department of Education announced in 2007 that it had botched the 2006 reading scores for more than 200,000 third-graders, resulting in a historic spike in scores that turned out to be a dud.
The problem: The test had not been "equated" properly, meaning it had essentially been made too easy.
In the wake of the foulup, the department contracted with an independent, highly regarded outfit - the Buros Center for Testing at the University of Nebraska - to audit future FCAT results.
Buros has deemed this year's results accurate, Smith said.
In 2008, elementary school principals around the state again raised questions after a historic dive in fifth-grade reading scores. Pinellas and Hillsborough officials were among those calling on the state for a review.
The state says it tripled checked. It said Buros checked, too. Nobody found problems.
It's the state's first year working with Pearson, the contractor under fire for the late results.
Many parents and educators remained skeptical.
"Out of the last five years, we've had now anomalies three of the five years," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. "Because the test is shrouded in secrecy and we really don't know exactly what's going on with it, we have to rely on the Department of Education's assessment of it - and of course they have an interest in making sure the test looks as good as possible because they are assessing an entire school system based on it."
Times staff writers Ron Matus, Tony Marrero, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.
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Hillsborough questions FCAT
Number of elementary schools facing penalties because their lowest-performing students didn't make sufficient gains in reading:
Number of elementary schools where the percentage of students reading at grade level dropped year to year:
Number of elementary schools whose overall learning gains in reading dropped year to year:
Source: Hillsborough County schools.