The FCAT you've come to know — and often complain about — is changing this school year as the state pushes higher academic standards and new testing.
For the first time, there will be no ninth-grade math Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Instead, most high school freshmen will take a new, computer-based Algebra I end-of-course exam in May, which will count toward 30 percent of their grade.
Even more sweeping is the rollout of what the state brands FCAT 2.0, coming in mid-April. It requires an upgraded reading exam for third- through 10th-graders and a retooled math exam for third- through eighth-graders.
These upgrades are based on the state's more rigorous grade-level expectations, called Next Generation Standards. In the new reading exam, for example, students will encounter passages from historical documents and classical literature.
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"Parents, principals and others are so used to the standards being raised each year, and learning that the pattern is continuing with FCAT changes and end-of-course exams won't cause them to be stunned," said Judith Klinek, an assistant superintendent in Palm Beach County. "It's become a way of life."
However, the introduction of a new end-of-course algebra exam surprised Rachelle Samson, a freshman at Western High School in Davie.
"We've been taking the math FCAT since we were little kids," she said. "I would think that coming into our first year of high school, you wouldn't have to be concerned with having to take this major test."
More changes will be phased in for 2012, including an upgraded science FCAT for fifth- and eighth-graders, and the elimination of the 10th-grade math FCAT and the 11th-grade science FCAT. Those tests will be replaced by end-of-course geometry and biology exams, also taken on a computer.
State educators say the changes are needed to make sure Florida's graduates are well prepared for college and better-paying jobs. The requirements had been too lax, they argue.
In recent years, more than half the Florida high school graduates who took placement tests at the state's community colleges needed remediation in at least one of the three key subjects of math, reading and writing.
That's why the state has introduced FCAT 2.0's "much more demanding content and rigor," said Kris Ellington, assistant deputy commissioner for assessment and school performance at the Education Department.
Also, a state law passed this spring phases in the three new end-of-course exams in math and science that will replace the high school FCAT math and science exams. It also sets in motion new graduation requirements.
This year's ninth graders are required to take geometry and Algebra I, but the requirements won't affect diplomas at the outset.
However, the changes mean the region's most gifted middle school math students will find themselves in the awkward position of having to take the Algebra 1 end-of-course test as well as the math FCAT.
These seventh- and eighth-graders enrolled in the class for high school credit, so they must take the test if they want the points.
"We suspect that our middle school kids who are placed properly and doing well should have no problem," said James Chinn, Broward's middle school math curriculum specialist.
By the 2013-14 school year, incoming high school students will have to pass geometry, Algebra I and biology end-of-course exams to graduate. They also would need to take Algebra II, chemistry or physics and one other rigorous science course.
David Basile, principal of South Plantation High School, said implementing the tests and explaining their relevance to students and parents "is really complicated," and "a myriad of issues can unfold."
Some of those issues: What if a student has a learning disability? What if a student struggles in math? What if a kid is making A's all year, then scores less than is needed to pass?
"If they don't think this out carefully, it's going to put a lot of pressure on your end-of-course teachers," Basile said.
He planned a simple message for the school's 600 freshman and their parents: Algebra I is now a requirement; so is the end-of-year-exam; so let's just get through this year.
Boca Raton High Principal Geoff McKee says he likes the shift.
"Since mastery of algebra and geometry is necessary for success in all higher levels of math, focusing on these exams is practical," he said. "Ultimately, the success of this initiative will depend on the quality of the test.''
Parents have expressed concerns the new standards could lead to more at-risk students quitting school. And they fear the end-of-course exams will become another version of the stress-inducing FCAT.
"I have mixed feelings," said parent-activist Jeanne Jusevic, chair of the Broward District Advisory Council. "I'm happy that they're finally going to a content-based tests, where they're actually testing knowledge and not some ephemeral criteria. My concern is that they're replacing one high-stakes test with another."
Some experts say those fears are valid since the end-of-course exams are statewide standardized tests that high school students must pass in order to graduate.
"It's the same disease with a different name," said Joanne Wynne, associate professor of urban education at Florida International University. "What you're doing is testing superficial kinds of skills. They're not teaching how to think about math. Students are learning to memorize formulas, and they forget the formulas once they walk away from the test."
Algebra teacher Scott Dobbs of Boca Raton High says the focus in his classes is on the material, not the test.
"We're not teaching the end-of-course exams; we're teaching the parts of algebra," Dobbs said. "We're going to give our students the best chance to shine."
Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.
Marc Freeman can be reached at mjfreeman@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6642.