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Posted at 03:29 PM ET, 05/21/2012

Test scores plummet — so Florida drops passing grade

Here’s the latest disaster in Florida’s standardized test-based school accountability system, which has been touted as a model for education reform around the country since it was developed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida gave a new standardized writing test to students in various grades and the scores were worse than awful. Only 27 percent of fourth-graders had proficient scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which was down from last year’s 81 percent. Eighth graders and 10th graders also had dramatically lower scores than last year.

State education officials panicked, and at an emergency meeting last week, the Florida Board of Education decided in a 4-3 vote that the best thing to do was to lower the passing score on this exam.

Let me repeat that: In order to make sure that students succeeded on the test, the passing grade was lowered.

The passing score does not just affect individual student scores; Florida public schools are given grades A-F based on these scores, part of Bush’s “Florida model” that has been copied by like-minded governors in recent years. What’s more, test scores in Florida are now used as a significant factor in teacher evaluations.

These governors apparently haven’t been reading newspapers in Florida, which for years have been chronicling one mess after another with the FCAT system. This paragraph is from a new editorial in the .Tallahassee Democrat:

“It’s not as if this is the first time problems with the FCAT — and the school grades closely associated with the FCAT — have made accountability impossible. Just look through some Tallahassee Democrat headlines going back 10 years: “State may see more ‘F’ schools: Changes in system may net more failures” (2002); “FCAT-grade criteria to get tougher” (2003); “New FCAT issues raised: Some say tests easier” (2004); “FCAT reading scores on the decline” (2005); “Florida schools granted leeway: It may mean more public schools pass” (2005); “School grading system may change” (2008); “FCAT audit to delay school grades” (2010); “FCAT writing scores drop across Florida” (2012).”

So what actually happened this spring? Are we to think that Florida students suddenly can’t write with any proficiency? Here’s what the education board’s press release issued last Tuesday said in part:

The Florida State Board of Education today adopted a new performance level standard for FCAT Writing. The performance level standard used for the purpose of calculating school grades for the 2011-12 school year will be a 3.0 on a scale of 6.0.

Today’s action was a result of reviewing preliminary scores that indicated significantly lower student performance based on an increased focus on writing conventions, such as grammar, and the quality of details provided as support when writing an essay.....

...The sequence of events that led to today’s vote follows:

* In spring 2010 the Florida legislature required that the Florida school grade writing standard be a score a student can earn.

* In May 2011, on the recommendation of a previous Commissioner of Education the State Board of Education set the school grade standard for FCAT Writing at 4.0 up from 3.5 since there was only one scorer and it was not possible to earn a half point.

* The State Board asked that the legislative budget request include a return to two scorers for each essay, which was implemented in 2012.

* In July 2011, school districts were notified of a change in the scoring of FCAT Writing for school year 2012 regarding the correct use of standard English conventions and the quality of details provided as support. The Department also posted sample writing papers illustrating the change in expectations and in August 2011 posted scoring guides for school district use at http://www.fldoe.org/arm.”

So the board, in fact, is saying that when scoring standards for grammar, capitalization, etc., were raised, students failed. But does this mean that all of those kids who flunked can’t properly write? Not likely.

The place to look for problems is with the test themselves, the scoring mechanism, and the fact that teachers — understanding the high stakes attached to the results — had not adjusted their test preparation to the new standards.

Lowering passing scores or making tests easier so that more kids pass is not singular to Florida of course. In New York City, Joel Klein resigned in 2010 as public schools chancellor after an eight-year tenure around the time it was discovered that the standardized test score improvements that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Klein had touted for years were inflated because the actual exams had become easier and easier to pass.

Across the country opposition is growing to test-based reform among parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, students and concerned citizens. Protests to the standardized test regime are being noticed everywhere — except, it seems, at the White House and the U.S. Education Department. It’s past time President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took a look at how their own federal policies are contributing to this dangerous testing obsession.

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By  |  03:29 PM ET, 05/21/2012

 
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