Manatee joins other Florida districts in calling for audit of writing test scores

MANATEE -- Manatee Schools Supt. Tim McGonegal is joining other superintendents in Florida in pressing for an audit to determine why the writing scores of the state's fourth-graders dropped more than 50 percent from last year.

Teachers unions and other education associations also are objecting to the statewide writing test results, released Monday, which show that the percentage of fourth-graders who scored 4 or higher on FCAT Writes dropped to 27 percent this year from 81 percent last year.

The percentage of eighth-graders determined to be proficient dropped from 82 to 33 percent, and the percentage of passing 10th-graders dropped from 80 to 38 percent.

"There's no way our students and our teachers could have dropped by 54 percent in one year," McGonegal said, citing a statement released by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "That's just not even feasible. It's not even possible."

Scores for individual districts haven't yet been released, and the state hasn't said when they will be. But word of the statewide scores has triggered outcry and caused the state Board of Education to call an emergency meeting for today to consider lowering the proficiency score from 4 to 3.5.

McGonegal and the superintendents association is objecting to that move, calling it a "Bandaid" and a "knee-jerk reaction." Instead, McGonegal says, the state should be conducting an in-depth investigation into how the tests were graded.

"For the sake of our students and our teachers, the state shouldn't just gloss this over," he said. "We need to have an external audit and find out what really happened here."

New grading standards on the FCAT writing exam call for more strict scrutiny of punctuation, spelling and sentence structure, as well

as closer scrutiny of the details students present in their writing.

Officials blamed the decrease on a handful of factors including more rigorous standards. Now, the State Board of Education has to determine what to do with the scores, which have been used to determine school grades.

Failing schools are required to put in place certain remedial programs that cost more to provide in already tight budget times.

State Sen. David Simmons, the Republican chairman of the Senate education appropriations panel, said the scores validate the concerns he had that the State Board was moving too fast in implementing new FCAT scoring standards. Simmons had moved during session to hold funding for some of the changes, but backed off amid Gov. Rick Scott's promises that the issue would be dealt with administratively.

"Simply raising the bar and in so doing labeling someone a failure isn't the correct way to achieve the results that we want," said Simmons, who repeated his support for increasing standards. "The way they are doing it is not the right way to do it."

Michael Peltier, of the News Service of Florida and Miami Herald staff contributed to this report.