1. Opinion

FCAT farce just gets worse

Published Jul. 11, 2012

No wonder Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson have suggested in recent weeks they are ready to reassess the FCAT. After more than a decade of leading the national charge on school accountability, Florida on Wednesday released 2011-12 grades for public elementary and middle schools that were largely meaningless. The grades have been tweaked, adjusted and tweaked again. Even ardent supporters of the A+ plan appeared willing to concede that the process, which began with the ill-conceived grading of the state's FCAT writing test, has been a complete mess.

Now leaders in Tallahassee should begin the serious discussion about what is next. Florida's plan to jettison the FCAT for end-of-course exams is still two years away. That's too long to wait to overhaul the A+ Plan if there's any hope of restoring faith with teachers, parents and the public that Florida's school accountability program is actually fair.

Wednesday's results would have looked even worse if the state Board of Education had continued on its original track, backed by Scott and Robinson, to dramatically raise requirements for student passing scores on the FCAT, on which school grades are largely based. By May, it was clear the state was moving too fast and risked labeling thousands of additional students and their schools as failures.

Results from the FCAT writing exam — which included tougher grading and a higher passing score — suggested that in just one year Florida schools went from teaching 81 percent of fourth-graders to write at grade level to just 27 percent. Robinson and the education board quickly recalibrated the scores. But the massaging didn't stop there.

The school grades released Wednesday also — compared with a year ago — de-emphasized the performance of a school's lowest achievers on the FCAT and prevented any school from dropping more than a single letter grade in one year. In Pinellas County that second provision meant 12 schools — including seven schools that received A's last year — otherwise would have dropped to a C or lower. And in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, more than 40 schools were saved from an even lower grade because of the change. In Hillsborough, West Tampa Elementary, would have dropped from and A to an F under the tougher formula before it was tweaked. How is that possible?

The results will obviously fuel the growing backlash against the FCAT. Even Republican state Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County school superintendent and the incoming Senate president, distanced himself from the results. He issued a statement reminding parents that by 2014-15 the FCAT will be gone, replaced with end-of-course subject tests that can be compared with national results.

But that's two years away, and the question Tallahassee should be deciding is what to do now. School grades and FCAT scores play a role in both school funding and teacher merit pay. Will that now be based on the faulty formula used Wednesday? And will the Legislature and Scott accept some responsibility? The new grades, after all, measured a school year in which per student funding dropped 8 percent. For that, voters should hold them to account.