Florida education officials need to explain shocking FCAT scores

Florida's drive to improve education standards through tougher standardized testing instead appears bent on punishing public schools, teachers and students. How else can the shocking scores on writing tests, released Monday, be interpreted?

The steep plunge -- by more than 50 percentage points among the state's fourth-graders and almost as bad for eighth- and 10th-graders -- underscores a grading system that Florida's Board of Education rushed into place without properly preparing schools.

Only 27 percent of fourth-graders scored passing marks of 4.0 or higher on a 6-point scale on the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, down sharply from 81 percent a year ago.

The percentage of proficient eighth-graders fell from 82 to 33 while 10th-graders dropped from 80 to 38.

Such declines will serve to add fuel to the growing movement against high-stakes standardized testing in public schools, which we cited in an April 29 editorial. Certainly the state needs to improve the quality of education but simply scarring students and teachers with flunking grades does little to achieve that.

The Board of Education recognized that somewhat in last week's decision to change the system for grading schools. None will drop more than one letter grade for this year so any shock to the system is not devastating -- as feared.

The state now predicts that the number of F schools will not be the previous projection of 199 but will be 131, still a big number and a dramatic increase from the 38 F schools in 2011.

Florida's new accountability system not only includes harder tests with higher passing scores, it also factors in the learning gains of the disabled and students still learning English. FCAT scores have a far-reaching impact -- on school letter grades, student graduation and for the first time on teacher evaluations and pay.

The writing test, which was administered in February, requires students to compose an essay in 45 minutes. The new grading puts greater emphasis on punctuation, spelling and sentence structure as well as clarity and other details. Plus, a passing grade moved up this year, from a 3.5 to a 4.

Manatee County Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal is but one voice expressing outrage at the scoring results, urging an in-depth investigation into the grading. We concur.

Even Gov. Rick Scott weighed in, issuing a statement saying, "The significant contrast in this year's writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results."

The Board of Education felt the heat. Meeting in an emergency session Tuesday morning, the board voted unanimously to lower the passing score to a 3 for this year only. That will leave the failure rate roughly the same as last year.

That doesn't address concerns about the scoring system. As the governor stated, Floridians need to understand this -- especially classroom teachers.

Since the writing test is regarded as easier than the reading and math exams, what can we expect when results on those come out?

If third-graders fail on reading, they will not progress to the next grade. If 10th-graders do not pass reading and math, they will not graduate. High-stakes testing, indeed.

Schools need to be better prepared for this new accountability and testing system. There shouldn't be stunning surprises like the writing test scores.