My reaction to the fallout in the wake of shocking failure numbers in Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test writing scores: The state’s public-education leaders must be kidding.
Sure, the dramatic drop in test scores — only 27% of fourth-graders passing this year, compared to 81% last year — necessitates investigation. Obviously, the quality of our students’ writing didn’t become overwhelmingly worse in a single calendar year.
But, the outrage is dangerously misplaced.
State district leaders focused their rage on the FCAT itself and, more specifically, its new grading procedure, which this year featured several key changes:
1. Scorers placed a higher emphasis on proper spelling, grammar and punctuation. (Anyone else incensed that this wasn’t an emphasis before?)
2. Scorers placed a higher emphasis on students’ arguments that used logic, specifics, depth, relevance and thoroughness. Students were penalized for rhetorical questions, memorization or use of false statistics.
3. This year, the state utilized two scorers for every test, which meant the final score was an average of the two scorers’ calculations.
In Manatee County, Superintendent Tim McGonegal called for an audit to investigate how the tests were graded. Others went further, arguing the Board of Education did not give districts enough time to readjust their curriculum to prepare students for the changes. (The board sent notice of the scoring changes to all school districts July 5, 2011.)
Ultimately, the Board of Education caved. On May 15, it announced it would lower the proficiency score on the test from a 4 to a 3 (on a six-point scale). This change, board officials said, would deliver about the same results as last year.
But, how does any of this satisfy the FCAT’s supposed emphasis on logic and discouragement of the use of false statistics? Changing the passing grade doesn’t change the level of writing proficiency of our students and delivers this frightening message: Don’t pursue excellence. Instead, lower your standards.
More importantly, the rhetoric buries the test’s most egregious revelation: Our students can’t pass a writing test that requires proper spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Yes, those silly, little buttons on the keyboard are used for more than making smiley-face emoticons on Facebook. Yes, “its” and “it’s” are different. So are “there,” “their” and “they’re.” And, yes, our students need to know those differences.
Perhaps there is a silver lining. FCAT opponents have long criticized the test for encouraging teachers to “teach to the test.” But, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing here. I’d love to see some properly placed apostrophes and — gasp — maybe even a semicolon or two in our students’ writing.
FCAT Writing Scoring Changes
The Florida Department of Education delivered notice of the writing scoring changes to all Florida superintendents in a memo July 5, 2011.
In the memo, Deputy Commissioner Kris Ellington wrote:
• Scoring will include increased attention to the correct use of standard English conventions. The current rubrics, which will be used for scoring in 2012, include expectations regarding the basic conventions of standard English, yet the scoring of this element in the past has been applied with leniency. Responses will continue to be scored holistically as draft writing, but scoring will be more stringent. Responses earning scores of 4 or 5 must at least generally follow the conventions of sentence structure, mechanics, usage, punctuation and spelling. To earn a score of 6, sentence structure is varied, and few, if any, errors occur in mechanics, usage, punctuation and spelling. To review the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards expectations on the use of conventions for each grade level, go to floridastandards.org and select Reading/Language Arts for that grade level, followed by the Writing Process strand and Standard 4: Editing for Language Conventions.
• Scoring will include increased attention to the quality of details, requiring use of relevant, logical and plausible support, rather than contrived statistical claims or unsubstantiated generalities. The quality of the support depends on word choice, specificity, depth, relevance and thoroughness. Responses earning high scores must include specific and relevant supporting details that clarify the meaning, i.e., the point of the paragraph or the central theme of the response. Rote memorization or overuse of compositional techniques, such as rhetorical questions, implausible statistics or pretentious language is not the expectation for quality writing at any grade level.
The writing portion of the FCAT is administered to fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders. Here is how this year’s results — with the new scoring procedures — compared to last year.
Grade % pass 2011 % pass 2012
Fourth grade 81% 27%
Eighth grade 82% 33%
10th grade 80% 38%