Florida's FCAT Writing failures sparks blame, questions about standardized testing

May 18, 2012

The scores on this year’s state writing test were so bad that state education officials voted to grade the test on a curve. The move comes after about 75-percent of students who took the test failed it. And as Lynn Hatter reports, those failing grades, coupled with the state board of education’s decision to lower the passing score on the test, have observers once again questioning the value of standardized testing.

This year the state placed greater emphasis on grammar, punctuation and spelling. Basic components of what most people would consider “writing”. But that extra focus is part of what tanked this year’s writing grades. Rose Collins, a grandparent of a student in Orange County, can’t figure out what the fuss is about.

“Unless I’m over-simplifying what I’m hearing, it appears the changes are that they’re just paying attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar. And back when I went to school, that was a basic function of learning to write a sentence. So it shouldn’t be that hard for them to complete that.”

But apparently it IS that hard, because 70-percent of students who took the writing test this year failed it. Education officials say prior to this year’s focus on basic writing conventions, like spelling and grammar, the state had taken a more “holistic” approach to writing, which meant focusing more on the ideas, rather than the execution.  Sabrina M. Allen has been teaching for about 15 years in the Big Bend.

“You use an holistic approach when you don’t know how to teach writing.”

On the old writing test students were expected to produce something that looked like a rough draft. But the new test requires a more polished look.

Prior to the state raising the bar on the test, about 80-percent of kids were passing. The state board of education held an emergency conference call to lower the passing score on the exam from a 4-to-3. But even that move caught flak from some who viewed the change as a retreat from higher standards.

But state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson says the lowering of the passing score is not a sign that the state is backing down.

“I wouldn’t describe it as “eating crow.” I would describe is as a lack of communication in preparing teachers and educators on the impact it would have…I see this as an action that favors an accountability system that’s strong, this wasn’t lowering standards, but more like a recalibration.”

The falloff on the scores also has also sparked a blame game. Many teachers complain the changes were never communicated well from the state. Others wonder what the teachers were teaching, if it wasn’t grammar, punctuation and spelling. Again, Commissioner Robinson:

“There was a point in American curriculum history where grammar was a part of the curriculum. for a host of reasons we moved from grammar, to English-Language Arts…many adults say they’re better writers now than their children, because of the shift away from grammar.”  

It used to be that grammar was taught by itself. Now it’s a part of a wider language arts curriculum. Other concerns over this year’s FCAT writing test  include the amount of time students were given to complete the test—many people said the 45 minutes allocated isn’t enough to complete a rough draft AND a finished product.

Shortly after the release of the preliminary writing scores, opponents to standardized testing were already highlighting the drop-off as an example of why such tests don’t work. Democratic State Representative Ron Saunders says these results should be a wake-up call to parents and education officials.

“I think as a parent I’d be concerned that my kid’s not getting a good education. I want him to learn more than just taking a test. I want him to learn how to be a good college student and a good member of society. So I think the misuse of the FCAT is a serious problem for parents and all those that care about our education system in Florida.” 

The Florida Department of Education is launching an investigation into what went wrong with this year’s FCAT Test. And it says that school districts won’t be penalized for the drop in writing scores. Florida has been widely credited with boosting student achievement at the K-12 level. Despite that success, colleges and universities continue to complain that students aren’t prepared for the coursework in higher education.