Florida picking up FCAT fumble

Last Friday's release of individual school and grade-level scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test further muddied the waters about state accountability and student proficiency. One of the most puzzling aspects of the tougher tests and stricter grading comes into focus with a comparison of reading and writing scores.

For example, 10th-graders at Bayshore High School scored a 76 on the writing test but only a 38 on the reading. If they are successful at writing, why isn't the reading score higher? Palmetto High shows a similar illogical disparity as do schools around the state.

This does not send any meaningful message about higher standards and expectations of student achievement. This points to flaws in the design and grading of the tests. And only adds to the confusion and anger from parents and the public with this year's changes in the FCAT.

The 2014-2015 school year cannot come quick enough. That will mark the demise of the FCAT, replaced by the Common Core national test and end-of-course exams in high school. Until then, Floridians are stuck with a merciless standardized test more reflective of education politics than student assessment.

Under Gov. Rick Scott, the state rushed reforms into place, overreaching with a very high bar. Even though state officials failed miserably in preparing school districts, teachers, parents and students for the FCAT changes, they're not running away from the public relations disaster.

Under the governor's direction, officials are mounting a full-fledged campaign to tamp down criticism and focus on the merits of higher standards. Indeed, Education Commissioner Gerald Robinson hosted a public forum in Tampa on Wednesday, the first in a series.

On Monday, the Florida Department of Education opened an FCAT 2.0 Call Center (866-507-1109), a website (www.FloridaPathToSuccess.org) and an email address (JustForParents@fldoe.org) to communicate with parents and answer questions.

Needless to say, call center operators were inundated on day one and the phones continue to ring.

The issue exploded 10 days ago when the board of education held an emergency meeting once scores on writing tests, released the day before, evoked widespread consternation with a steep plunge.

Grades for fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders plummeted by some 50 percentage points, prompting the board to lower the grade needed to pass.

Not only did the FCAT change, the state included students learning English as a second language and those with learning disabilities, ignoring widespread criticism.

This entire fiasco is not sound public policy. The goal is commendable, a stronger education system graduating more knowledgeable students, but the execution has been disastrous. The irrational discrepancy in writing and reading scores indicates trouble.

As if this isn't enough heartburn, the Department of Education intends to drill down further with student assessments -- all the way into pre-kindergarten.

While that holds merit as a way to prevent costly remedial education at higher grade levels and better schooling for all students, we shudder to think now these assessments will be administered given recent history.

Moving forward, we expect a better performance from the state regarding standardized testing.