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Florida Writing Tests Set Off Alarms; State Board Sets New Cut Score

The Florida State Board of Education voted unanimously on May 15 to reduce the passing score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in writing from a 4.0 to a 3.0, after a huge plunge in the percentage of passing scores on the FCAT reading tests this year triggered a round of recriminations in the state's education community. But this phenomenon is not unique to the Sunshine State.

The FCAT writing test is scored on a 6-point scale, but in May 2011 the state board approved tougher scoring guidelines for the test. This year, the percentage of Florida 4th-graders who earned a passing score on the FCAT writing test plummeted by two-thirds, from 81 percent in 2011 to a mere 27 percent this year (the scores were filed with the state May 10). For 8th-graders, that nosedive was from 82 percent to 33 percent, and for 10th-graders, the tumble was from 75 percent to 38 percent.

Looking more closely at the score breakdowns provided by the state, what's interesting is that most of the passing students did just enough to hit the minimum passing score—but no more. Among passing 10th-graders, for example, about two-thirds scored the minimum passing 4.

Every year under the A-F school grading system, the pass rates play a significant part in a school's grade. But as Leslie Postal highlighted for the Orlando Sentinel, the schools' grades this year will now be judged based on 3 being a passing score, not a 4, following the state board's change.

Jeff Solochek reported for the Tampa Bay Times that the FCAT evaluators also paid more attention this year to the quality of the language and the level of detail in students' writing responses. By way of illustration, a sample response that scored a 2 this year was marked off for being repetitive, list-like, and predictable, while one sample response scored as a 2 last year was noted for errors that, while hurting sentence structure and conventions, "do not impede communication." (The state changed its contract with NCS Pearson this year to ensure two evaluators of each test instead of one.)

In its materials for the May 15 vote, the state board noted that on Aug. 31 of last year the state education department posted the new scoring guidelines for school districts to use. But Postal notes that the state's education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, still said districts and teachers should have gotten more information about the change.

The issue of rising cut scores and subsequent problems that may trigger nasty headlines crosses state boundaries. As this official statement from the Michigan Department of Education last year shows, new passing numbers typically make students' scores from previous years (if not the students themselves) look pretty bad. Using the cut scores adopted by the Michigan board of education last September and applying them to 2010 math scores, for example, would have meant the share of proficient students plunge to 35 percent from 95 percent.

The Foundation for Florida's Future, led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who oversaw the creation of the A-F school grading system, stressed that even with the latest FCAT results, the state should still receive plaudits for making sure students are truly prepared for post-school life.

"The State Board of Education's decision provides stability to Florida's school grading and accountability system, while upholding the higher standards they adopted last summer," said the group's executive director, Patricia Levesque, in a statement.

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