The Miami-Dade school system was also happy with its writing scores, which in gains for fourth and 10th grades trumped state averages. Eighth-graders kept pace with their Florida peers.
In particular, two-thirds of Dade’s high school sophomores scored at or better than a 3.5, the number at which schools are held accountable. That was up seven percentage points from last year and, like the district’s fourth-grade scores, better than the state.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the district’s scores “significant,” particularly considering the elevated cutoff score and the large population of Miami-Dade students who are taking the FCAT but are still learning English.
“It’s a good day for Miami-Dade,” he said of all the results. “But this also outlines the room for growth ahead of us.”
Scores on the third-grade reading FCAT range from 1 to 5, with 3 the minimum to be considered satisfactory. Students who score a 1 are at serious risk of being held back.
Close to 5,900 Dade students (22 percent) scored a 1 on the third-grade reading exam, which means they are at risk of being retained. In Broward, 3,987 (20 percent) scored a 1.
Only a couple of years ago, about 72 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or better on the FCAT reading portion. But does that mean student performance has actually slipped? Not necessarily.
Florida’s lower passage rates are largely the result of revised exams and a tougher scoring system. State education officials have said these changes are necessary to make sure students leave high school prepared for college or the workforce.
Year after year, state education leaders have tweaked the formulas and methodology by which students and schools are rated. Florida’s Board of Education faced particular criticism last year over a series of changes to the FCAT writing exam, which led student performance to plummet from a roughly 80 percent passage rate to only about a third of students passing. The state responded by passing an emergency rule that lowered the required passing score, which led to better student passage rates.
This year’s passing score of 3.5 is a compromise between the previous passing score of 3 and the short-lived passing score of 4 that proved disastrous. Roughly 58 percent of Florida students achieved a 3.5 or above this year. Students in grades 4, 8, and 10 must take the FCAT writing exam. Students themselves are not penalized for failing grades, but school letter-grades can suffer if students don’t score a 3.5.
But on Friday, Department of Education Chancellor of Public Schools Pam Stewart cautioned that the 3.5 score doesn’t actually signal proficiency.
“Proficiency has not been established” by the state, Stewart said. “I don’t think we can say 3.5 is a measure of proficiency.”
Nathan Balasubramanian, Broward’s executive director for strategy and continuous improvement, said Florida hasn’t spent as much money to develop its writing test as some other states have. As a result, Florida’s exam lacks the level of scope and sophistication found in states like Colorado, he said, making it tricky to assign a whole lot of meaning to a 3.5 score.
“That’s part of the reason why you’re seeing the state hedging,” he said.
Florida’s ever-changing definition of what is satisfactory makes it difficult to compare a single school’s progress over time, and has contributed to increased public skepticism about the overall value of its high-stakes testing system.
“The fact the state this year is pretty flat in reading is a reflection of the fact we changed a whole lot in accountability rules over the last few years,” said Carvalho. “It’s time to leave accountability rules stable for a while for people to adapt to them and actually be able to measure year-to-year improvements.”
Teachers have a lot at stake in Friday’s numbers, too, as teacher evaluations are partially based on students’ FCAT scores.
School letter grades are set to be released in July, and schools that repeatedly receive D or F grades can be forced to change their administrators and teachers, or even close altogether.
Students’ individual FCAT results will be distributed to parents by schools in the coming weeks.