State education leaders warned us the new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests were tougher. School superintendents told us that test scores and school grades might dip. And boy, were they right.
The first year after the 2010 Florida Legislature added a writing requirement to the FCAT, more than 80 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders scored at Level 4 or higher -- a big success. At the 10th-grade level, three-fourths of students did equally well.
Teachers, it seems, had figured out how to teach writing to fit the test. The writing formula was simple. Even if a student had trouble with reading, he could score well in writing.
So last summer the state Board of Education changed how writing is scored, raising the bar for standard conventions such as spelling, punctuation and grammar. In the past, these elements were treated with leniency. In some ways, writing samples from 2011 were graded as drafts, while those from 2012 were evaluated as finished products.
And this year, the results were abysmal. Only 27 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored at Level 4 or higher, down two-thirds from the previous year. Similar plunges were seen at other grade levels, too.
In a conference call with members of the media, Education Commissioner Gerald Robinson refused to admit the state rushed this year’s changes. Instead, he blamed the dramatic drop on poor communications. He seemed to suggest that if DOE had better communicated the changes, teachers would have taught better, parents would have coached better and students would have scored higher. Listening to him brought to mind that scene in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate." And how.
For a state that trusts the FCAT to measure the quality of its public education system and the competency of its teachers, dramatic test-score declines can’t be dismissed as a simple communications error.
This year’s FCAT results have shaken the public’s trust.
In response, the Board of Education called an emergency meeting and unanimously agreed to lower the passing standard to Level 3.
And just like that, outcomes improved. The number of passing fourth-graders is now 81 percent. Similar bumps were seen among eighth-graders and 10th-graders, too.
Wait a minute. Not so fast. This year’s terrible scores are a reality check in this game of high-stakes testing. For every year, our lawmakers tinker with public education using a measure we now know is unreliable. And every year, they throw something new at teachers right before school starts, and expect perfection.
New standards, new tests and new scoring systems need to be implemented not in rapid-fire succession, but with consideration. They should be tested and refined in the field before used to label the measure of our students, teachers, schools and school districts.
Our public schools aren’t failures. It’s the Florida Legislature and Board of Education that have failed our students and teachers, and by extension, all of us.
Rick Outzen is the publisher/editor of Pensacola's Independent News.
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