Tallahassee, Florida - An unexpected, huge drop in students' scores on a section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is prompting the state to lower the passing grade.
The state Board of Education held an emergency meeting Tuesday to vote on lowering the passing score from 4.0 to 3.0 on the scale of six. The board voted unanimously to make 3.0 the passing grade on the FCAT writing test. Under this new measurement, 80 percent of fourth graders pass. Originally only 27 percent earned passing grades.
For eighth graders, the percentage of passing students rises from 33 to 77 percent and for tenth graders it jumps from 38 to 84 percent.
Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson says clearly the students did not suddenly become bad writers. He blames the scoring problems on several reasons, including a tougher grading system, and this year two companies graded tests instead of one.
Robinson insists Florida is not lowering its standards on the writing test.
"I see this today as an action that favors an accountability system that's strong, that puts into account some things we can do differently, but at the same time identifies that holding students to higher standards is important. This in no way was lowering standards as much as calibrating for some changes that needed to take place."
Robinson admits the Department of Education should have done a better job letting parents know about the tougher scoring standards this year. He vows to fix that.
"We could've done a much better job of raising the flag sooner and saying when we say this is important and that we're going to grade it in ways that we have not before, logically you would know there's going to be a change in results. We didn't do a great enough job of that."
Critics say the latest problems with the FCAT highlight deep flaws in the assessment test.
They say standards are constantly changing, students and parents are confused about performance, and children are stressed out as they're forced to take a lot of tests.
Florida Democrats believe the state is misusing the FCAT because it helps determine school grades, funding for schools and pay for teachers.
House Democratic Leader Rep. Ron Saunders believes there is too much emphasis on the FCAT.
"We think we have to reduce the emphasis of the FCAT as a measuring stick. They're looking to use the FCAT as how to pay teachers, how do you evaluate students, even how do you assess funding for schools and I think the over reliance on the FCAT is really creating a problem in our system and it's creating an imbalance that needs to be corrected."
Florida's teachers union says it hopes the problem with the writing test leads to changes in how the FCAT is used.
"This is something that's kind of a political strategy that's being followed. Any independent research has shown that you don't use tests the way the state of Florida is trying to use standardized tests and what we really need to do is use this as a wakeup call so that the education hierarchy in Florida gets together with the teachers and the administrators and the parents and figured out a better, more fair way of assessing how our students are doing and how our school system is doing," said Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association.
Commissioner Robinson rejects the idea that the problem with this year's writing test will undermine confidence in Florida's system of standardized testing. He says the state is doing a great job with its accountability system.
Not all parents agreed with that assessment as the Board of Education took public comments during its emergency conference call. One parent said she thought the emphasis on testing in schools "sucks the joy out of learning" for students.
Robinson offered this reply.
"We test students to identify where their success is located and what are the developmental needs. We do it to assess to make the make sure the investment that we're making into children is great. A number of people say we test too much. The question I have to ask is compared to what. When students decide to go into college they have to take tests, whether it's ACT or otherwise, many of them will go into professions that also require tests... and so we live in a society where assessment is part of the process."
Robinson is encouraging students not to get discouraged by the changing scores. He says children should just continue to work hard.