Ed board lowers the bar for the FCAT writing test

May 15, 2012

Leon County School Officials say the steep decline in scores on the FCAT Writing test will have an impact on school grades. But they don’t know how big that impact will be. Lynn Hatter reports, this year nearly 75-percent of all students taking the writing exam failed it, prompting the state board of education to hold an emergency hearing Tuesday to reduce the passing score from a 4 to a three.

The steep decline in passing rates has many observers questioning the validity of the FCAT writing test. And Leon County Superintendent Jackie Pons is one of those with questions about why so many students failed.

“The credibility of the test comes into question and I think there’s going to be a lot of concern with this around Florida and what I would suggest is that we look at every aspect of this test, from the prompt to the scoring.”  

Pons says it’s a bad day for Florida’s FCAT Test. Before the state board of education raised the bar on the writing exam, about 80-percent of students were passing it. This year, only a quarter to a third of the students passed. The state has steadily increased expectations for student learning, but Pons says the writing test may be an indicator that its time to slow down.

 “Part of the problem we have today is that we have so many people involved in changing proficiency levels on our FCAT, and we’ve done it in such a hurry that we’ve created a situation like this.”

The Florida Department of Education says it’s looking into what went wrong with this year’s writing exam. Education observers cite things like a lack teacher preparation, unclear communication of expectations from the state to local officials, and the amount of time given for students to complete all of the writing requirements.  This year’s test was also harder. The state placed more emphasis on grammar, punctuation and spelling, which, according to Leon County’s assessment director Paul Felch, had not been done before.

“In the past, the readers looked at that more leniently. But this year, they decided to put more emphasis on that.”  

That means that the mistakes students were allowed to make on the test in previous years, now count against them.

The dramatic decrease in the passing rates for the writing test has many districts concerned about the impact on school grades. State Board of Education Member John Padget says the board’s decision to lower the passing score is meant to hold districts harmless.

-“I will support the motion or any motion which will essentially hold the schools and districts harmless for this year as regards writing.  In other words, we should not have a surprise at this late time.” 

However, the lower passing scores will only be in place for a year. And Leon’s Jackie Pons says he doesn’t believe there won’t be consequences for schools due to this year’s results. The state says it plans to notify districts sometime next week about the results of this year’s writing test.