FCAT fiasco points up failures at the top

Published May 16, 2012

The Florida Board of Education was in crisis mode Tuesday, holding an emergency meeting by telephone to change on the fly the illogical scoring of this year's FCAT writing test. Public anger at the overuse of high-stakes standardized tests finally boiled over, as more than 800 people listened in to the conference call and queued up to question how this mess happened — and what it means for their children and their schools. What it means is that there is too much emphasis on standardized tests and that the state's manipulation of the rules render the test scores meaningless.

Faced with an uprising, the board had little choice but to control the damage and essentially grade on the curve to improve the results. It dropped the passing score to 3 (out of 6) instead of keeping it at a 4. That makes the results look more plausible and avoids the inaccurate perception that student performance dropped off a cliff overnight. But that answer is only a stopgap, and it raises significant issues about the meaning and the value of the FCAT, which affects everything from school grades to teacher bonuses. Those are issues that the board and Education Commission Gerard Robinson need to revisit if Florida's accountability system is to retain any of its quickly collapsing credibility. Robinson's failure to anticipate this mess also erodes confidence in his ability to chart a clear path for education in this state.

The FCAT writing exam itself didn't change. Administered to fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders, it remains a 45-minute test that begins with a "prompt" that spurs a student to start writing. But two things about the grading changed. Punctuation, spelling and grammar, as well as supporting details, were graded harder, which meant that a passing grade of 4 was more difficult to earn. And each test was marked by two graders instead of one. That's actually an improvement, but it meant that when graders disagreed, they would split the difference and give half-point grades. That effectively lowered the number of passing tests as well.

Then came the fallout. For example, 81 percent of last year's fourth-graders scored 4 or higher. This year, under the tougher rules, only 27 percent did. As the education commissioner admitted, he knew there was a problem because "students didn't overnight become bad writers."

Indeed they didn't. The past two years, the vast majority of students scored right in the middle, in the 3- to 4-point range — 72 percent of fourth-graders last year versus 73 percent this year, for example. While there were more 3's and fewer 4's this year, as one would expect from tougher standards, that's not a sea change. But the scoring rules — which are subjective — made it seem like one. The subjectivity is obvious this year by the number of 3.5's awarded — every one of them represents a disagreement between the two graders. More than one in five fourth-graders got one.

This debacle should reinforce that a school's letter grade is made up of lots of elements that are far from objective measures and may ultimately say little that is meaningful about a school. It's a stew of calculations that results in a simplistic rating that doesn't begin to give parents and students enough information.

As the state moves to common nationally based assessments and appropriate end-of-course exams that test the material that should have been learned in the classroom, officials should be chastened by this fiasco. Schools should be held accountable for student performance, but the measurement needs to be scaled appropriately.