June 6, 2014

FCAT scores inch up statewide and in South Florida

Florida says goodbye to its long-standing school exam with a small increase in student scores.

The last-ever batch of FCAT scores arrived on Friday, with Florida students showing slight improvement on an exam that has come to symbolize the state’s test-focused education philosophy.

Come next year, Florida will continue using standardized tests, but it will shift to a new exam to match the Common Core standards, a set of academic goals adopted by more than 40 states.

Florida’s last dance with the FCAT was somewhat anticlimactic, with an increase of about one or two percentage points in many test categories. It was a far cry from some of the more tumultuous years of the exam, such as 2012 and its disastrous writing scores, which plummeted more than 50 points. The state back then responded with an emergency change that lowered the required passing score.

In 2014, an election year, the release of positive FCAT news was welcomed by both state and local officials. Even though the gains were small, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said that moving the needle in a positive direction still matters, particularly when it happens in such a large, heavily populated state.

“When you’re talking about the vast numbers that are taking the assessment . . . we can say that those improvements are significant,” Stewart said.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the results “compelling.” On a large poster board, he posted grade-by-grade results next to scores from Broward and the state that show overall Miami-Dade’s students are improving their scores faster than their peers in other parts of the state.

Students improved their scores despite widespread concerns that teachers were asked this year to teach lessons based on two sets of learning benchmarks — the outgoing Sunshine State Standards tested by the FCAT, and the new Florida Standards that are closely aligned with the Common Core.

“Kudos to teachers, because they were able to navigate a confusing set of standards,’’ Carvalho said. He said that moving toward more rigorous standards may have boosted test scores. “So if [teaching to two standards] was an experiment, the experiment paid off.”

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said it was too early to tell how teachers’ dual-standard balancing act had affected his district’s scores. Runcie acknowledged that it was a “challenge” to get teachers to fully embrace the Common Core this year, given that it is still the old FCAT exam that weighs heavily in both teacher evaluations and the A-to-F letter grades that are issued to schools.

Regarding this year’s performance, Runcie said, “The district has basically remained stable, given all the changes that are going on. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not where we want to be.”

In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, scores overall went up by a modest amount. Miami-Dade students for the most part posted higher satisfactory scores in all grade levels and subjects. The most notable gains came among third-graders on reading exams, moving up from 53 percent scoring at grade level to 56 percent.

Even when the number of Miami-Dade students scoring at grade level dropped, scores remain higher across the board when compared to 2011, the first year of the current version of the FCAT.

The only exception was eighth-grade math, where a noticeable drop in satisfactory scores was widely attributed to many high-performing students opting out of the FCAT because they were already taking end-of-course exams in algebra and geometry.

Broward County students improved in three test categories when compared to last year. Both elementary and middle school students improved their reading scores by one percentage point, and eighth-graders posted science scores that were one point higher than 2013.

Scores for individual schools varied widely in some cases.

Policies polarizing

Despite students’ improved results this year, Florida’s test-heavy education policies are still a polarizing issue. And the new Common Core standards have only exacerbated the debate, with opposition from conservatives who call the standards federal over-reach. Fringe foes have even dubbed them “Communist Core.’’

Some teachers and parents are also objecting to the standards and how test scores have become the primary measuring stick of whether schools and teachers are doing well.

For example, test scores are the key factor in giving A-to-F letter grades to schools. This year’s letter grades, the last to be based on the FCAT, are expected to be released sometime in July, and schools that repeatedly receive D or F grades can be forced to overhaul their staffs or even close altogether.

At Allapattah Middle, a school that has struggled on the FCAT, principal Bridget McKinney believes this year’s strong performance will be enough to move the school from an F to a C.

“The teachers are elated,” said McKinney. “At some point, despite all our challenges, [the scores] had to match the work we put in.”

FCAT scores also count for a large portion of Florida’s teacher evaluations — even though there is significant research suggesting that out-of-school factors, and not teachers, mostly drive student performance. An April report by the American Statistical Association noted that “most estimates” say differences in teacher quality account for only 1 percent to 14 percent of a student’s test results.

“The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences,” the ASA wrote.

Still, teachers are often blamed for poor student test scores. The flip side: On good-news days such as Friday, teachers are generally praised.

But Susan Lewis-Ruddy, who teaches civics at Glades Middle School in Miramar, worried that testing is stifling creativity in the classroom. Under state law, Lewis-Ruddy’s students must take a standardized end-of-course exam, and she said getting students ready for that exam is so time-consuming that there’s no longer time for large-scale classroom projects — the type of activity that engages students.

“There’s things that maybe we used to like to do, or would want to do, but we’ve got to teach to those test questions,” she said.

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