EDUCATION

Florida test scores rise or plateau, but school grades likely to drop

 

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

South Florida’s students performed as well or better than last year in most every field tested in 2013 by the state. But schools, and by extension teachers, are likely to be judged more harshly in the coming months as Florida implements more rigorous standards.

On Friday, the Florida Department of Education released the remaining results for FCAT 2.0 assessments, as well as end-of-course exams. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called gains across his district “remarkable.” Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said scores were “stable.”

But Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett described the statewide data as “a mixed bag,” with scores improving on end-of-course exams but remaining stagnant on FCAT subjects. He said school grades released this summer will likely drop due to tougher accountability measures.

“The FCAT results are flat and I find that personally unacceptable,” he said. “I don’t want to overstate our happiness in how we perceive the [end-of-course] results. But I don’t want to overstate our disappointment in flat results of the FCAT.”

Results released Friday were for FCAT 2.0 reading (grades 4 through 10), math (4 through 8) and science (5 and 8), as well as end-of-course assessments in algebra, geometry, biology and U.S. history. Writing, and third-grade math and reading scores were released last month. Students’ individual scores will be released by schools in the coming weeks.

This year:

• Miami-Dade’s FCAT reading scores improved across all grades compared to last year’s, while Broward’s were up slightly.

• FCAT math results were harder to read because of conflicts that hurt eighth-grade scores, and to a lesser extent seventh grade. But toss those aside, and scores were up modestly across Miami-Dade and down slightly in Broward.

• On end-of-course exams, at least 60 percent of students who took geometry and biology for the first time passed in South Florida. And first-time takers of the crucial algebra exam passed at improved rates of 65 percent in Miami-Dade and 66 percent in Broward.

• More high school sophomores passed FCAT reading, which like algebra is mandatory to earn a diploma. Students in both Miami-Dade and Broward passed the reading test at a rate of 52 percent - an improvement of 6 points for Dade, and 3 points for Broward. Students who fail the exams have more opportunities to take the tests again.

The state will use this year’s scores to measure growth in schools. The scores also factor into school grades and teacher evaluations. But tests, cut scores and grading formulas have been changed so often in Florida that some question how much the data means.

For instance, Broward and Miami-Dade’s eighth-grade math FCAT scores plummeted this year because high-performing students in advanced math classes were administered the algebra and geometry end-of-course exams rather than the math FCAT, and their absence hurt overall results. It’s unclear if that change will contribute to lower school letter grades.

“If I were the public, it’s hard to read a lot into these numbers,” Runcie said.

Carvalho said results show Miami-Dade’s students improved dramatically, but its unlikely they’ll get their due credit.

“The results are evident,” he said. “What I’m concerned about at this point is the fact that, notwithstanding this dramatic increase in student performance, we may still see a significant decrease in school letter performance.”

Carvalho wants the state to review the way it factors some assessment scores into school grades and to bring back a safety net that last year kept grades from dropping more than one letter.

Also at issue: Even as Florida tightens accountability measures, the state is moving to implement new, more rigorous Common Core standards that aren’t measured by the FCATs or end-of-course exams. So the new standards will be measured by all new tests in two years.

“With so much at stake, with letter grades at stake, with implications on teacher evaluations, teacher performance and teacher pay, when we are ushering in a new era of accountability a year from now, why significantly disrupt the system when we do not know what the true impact will be?” Carvalho asked.

Common Core standards are also being phased into classrooms in South Florida, and teachers are being asked to use methods that aren’t assessed by the FCAT. Runcie wants the state to reduce the weight FCAT scores carry in evaluating teachers.

“That needs to be changed, and needs to be changed in a hurry,” he said.

Bennett acknowledged that some districts may go through a rough patch while trying to juggle incoming Common Core standards with the outgoing FCAT materials. But he said the new standards, as well as the state’s decision to raise the bar on accountability measures, are all intended to improve schools and better prepare students for college.

“This data is very important, but we also can’t take our eyes off the ball, that what we are expecting will be a higher level of understanding. We know from experience, and Florida has set this conversation better than anyone, that every time we increase expectations, Floridians respond,” he said. “Everything we’ve done to this point has set our state on the right path to get where we’re going.”

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