TAMPA, Fla. - When state education officials toughened FCAT standards and raised the passing scores for this year they expected fewer students would pass the test, but they did not expect a dramatic drop in scores.
The first round of scores are out and about a third of students passed with a 4 or better compared to three-quarters of students last year.
During an emergency conference call meeting Tuesday morning, State Board of Education officials unanimously voted to lower the passing score from a 4 out of 6 to a 3 for this school year. State Board of Education member John Padgett says, "I will support the motion only if it holds schools and districts harmless for this year in regards to writing."
State officials estimate about 81 percent of 4th, 8th and 10th graders who took the writing test will score a 3 or higher.
Fourth graders at Anderson Elementary School knew this year's FCAT writing test would be tough.
"I thought it was kind of hard," says Erin McHugh, 10, 4th grader.
But still they expected to do well until the scores came out. "When I heard only 27 percent got a 4 or higher, [it was a] big shock to me because I know I've prepared my students. There are students in this classroom capable of getting a 6 or 5," says Lindsey Schenker, a 4th grade teacher at Anderson Elementary. "To see what they've done all year and hear that puts up red flags in your head. You wonder what happened and what went wrong."
The scores alarmed state education officials too. Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson told board members, "When I saw the dramatic drop in scores, I realized overnight students did not become bad writers. We have to figure out was it a scoring challenge or a challenge with the rigors, which I found out was the case."
Schenker says the state also failed to communicate enough with teachers about the changes. She says, "Things consistently changed this year. If we had known from the get-go, we'd be more prepared for it, students would be more prepared for it."
Robinson agrees the state could have done a better job communicating with teachers. "There should have been a follow up to the change in rigor, the seriousness of the test, and the impact this would have on schools."
The test stayed the same except how it's scored changed. Students call the new requirements the "Big 5." "Improper capitalization, capitalization, punctuation, subject verb agreement, and verb tense," explains Erin.
Schenker says lowering the passing score isn't the answer and may send the wrong message to students. She says, "If all my students get a 70 on a test, I think they should get a 100. I am not going to alter their grade for them. We are going back to review and change it. I don't want them to get the idea not putting their best effort is OK."
While the state prepares to review what went wrong, students have this suggestion for improving the test for next year: "Probably a little more time and a bit less to worry about," says Erin.
The state is conducting an internal and external audit of the testing. The data should be available by July for the board to review. The lower writing score is for this school year only. The state will address setting a new proficiency score in writing in the fall.
Schools will receive writing scores by the end of the week and students will get their essays back to see where they need improvement.
Teachers, students, and parents now worry about the next round of scores, especially in reading and math, where the stakes are high. Students have higher standards to meet this year. If a third grader does not pass reading, they may not be promoted to the fourth grade, and if a high school student does not pass either reading or math, they may not graduate.
School grades are set to come out in June.