Robert Krampf’s first e-mail to Florida’s Department of Education was cordial, even as he raised troubling allegations that poorly written FCAT Science exam questions could be grading students as wrong even when they chose right answers.
In a gesture of cooperation, Krampf asked if there was “anything that I can do to help,” and the well-known science educator (nicknamed “The Happy Scientist”) signed off with his usual cheery closing of “have a wonder-filled day.”
Things got less cordial from there.
Internal government e-mails show the state dismissed Krampf as “only a blogger,” even though his popular educational science videos are regularly used by teachers and school districts nationwide and across Florida. A frustrated Krampf complained on his teaching website — prompting multiple media reports that were unflattering to the state and the FCAT.
Finally, after almost a year of Krampf feuding via e-mail with state education leaders, Florida belatedly acknowledged its errors, and the state now uses new scientific definitions and FCAT sample questions to replace those that were either unclear or just plain wrong.
Krampf’s one-man crusade to fix the FCAT only further fueled longstanding criticisms of a test-driven educational system that affects millions of students and thousands of teachers and schools throughout Florida.
Students who fail the Reading FCAT are at risk of being held back or not graduating high school. Teacher evaluations are, in part, based on FCAT scores. And schools receive coveted “A” grades based on cumulative FCAT scores; schools that get repeated Ds or Fs can be forced to close. This year’s letter grades will be released over the summer.
With so much riding on FCAT scores, the accuracy of the test is hugely important. But Krampf’s findings call that accuracy into question.
Krampf focused on the FCAT test-writing guidelines, as opposed to the actual exam, which the state doesn’t release. The guidelines, which are produced by the state, are worth scrutinizing because they’re used as a reference tool when private companies create the actual test.
Among the problems Krampf found:
• The term “Germination” was defined, in part, as “the process by which plants begin to grow from seed to spore.” That simply never happens — there are no plants that go from seed to spore.
• A fifth-grade sample question asked how flowers would respond to light coming in through a window. The correct answer was “the flowers would lean toward the window,” but Krampf said it’s usually leaves (and not flowers) that lean toward sunlight. Also, Krampf found that one of the “incorrect” answers (that the flowers would begin to wilt in the sun) is, in fact, correct.
• One fifth-grade sample FCAT question featured an illustration of a giant panda paw, which has a sixth finger (other types of bears have only five fingers). The question asks students what this thumb-like sixth finger would be most useful for, with the correct answer being to “hold the bamboo stalks it feeds on.”
Incorrect answers have the panda climbing with the thumb, digging with the thumb, or crushing the bamboo with it. Krampf argued that people do, in fact, use their thumbs for climbing, digging and crushing items — making the question confusing.