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FCAT scores show jump in writing

Florida’s Department of Education on Friday released partial FCAT results, showing big gains in fourth-grade writing scores throughout the state.

In Miami-Dade, the percent of fourth-grade students scoring at or above the state’s 3.5 required score jumped 11 percentage points, to 58 percent. Broward’s percent of students meeting that threshold rose 10 points, to 64 percent.

“Congratulations to Florida’s teachers and students for the rise in FCAT Writing Scores,” tweeted Gov. Rick Scott.

There were some caveats to the good news, however. Students this year were given a third more time to write their essays (60 minutes instead of last year’s 45), so some of the improvement could stem from children having more time to organize their thoughts.

Also, this year’s exam topic — asking students if they had ever won something special — was likely far easier for students to write about than last year’s subject, which asked students to “imagine what happens” on a camel ride. That question was widely criticized as absurdly difficult.

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said local school superintendents praised this year’s FCAT writing question as more “accessible” for students, though Bennett insisted other nuts-and-bolts teaching strategies — such as better teacher training and more classroom attention to proper writing — also contributed to the testing gains.

“I do believe that what we saw is better writing,” Bennett said.

In other FCAT results released Friday, fewer than 60 percent of Florida’s third-graders — 57 percent — are reading at or above what the state considers “satisfactory performance.” The figure represents a slight increase from last year’s 56 percent.

Both Miami-Dade and Broward counties performed slightly below the state’s 57 percent average, with 53 percent of Miami-Dade students scoring at or above grade level, and 54 percent of Broward students doing so.

State officials acknowledged that passing the FCAT reading exams is more difficult than achieving the “basic” grade-level score on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. This year’s NAEP scores have yet to be released, but in previous years more than 70 percent of Florida fourth- and eighth-graders have achieved that threshold.

In FCAT math, 58 percent of Florida third-graders scored at or above grade level — a figure unchanged from last year. Miami-Dade performed higher than average in math, with 62 percent of students at or above grade level. Broward’s passage rate matched the state’s at 58 percent.

Broward’s third-grade math and reading scores represented a slight dip from last year, as the percentage of students meeting math proficiency dropped one percentage point, while the percentage meeting the reading standard dropped two points. Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie downplayed those drops as statistically insignificant, and emphasized the double-digit increase in writing scores.

To do well on a writing exam, he said, “you’ve got to be able to use your reading ability, your cognitive skills, to be able to integrate information and put your ideas down on paper.”

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.