The state admits FCAT graders were substandard. So were its own excuses.
By Times editorial
Published June 15, 2006
Janitors and popcorn salesmen have graded the most important test in Florida's public schools, and Education Commissioner John Winn is suddenly tongue-tied about the revelations that required a lawsuit to uncover. He is absurdly complacent, even though wrongly graded tests can lead to teachers being fired and students losing diplomas.
How can he just shrug his shoulders?
Winn followed the well-worn bureaucratic path of resistance and denial when asked in March why Kelly Services was advertising for $10 temps to grade the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. He locked arms with CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company being paid $86-million to oversee the FCAT, and refused requests to turn over the qualifications of the people who grade the written answers. He called it a "political fishing expedition."
Along the way, Winn also made repeated categorical assurances about the graders: "Never in 14 years has a scorer not met the standard." The testing contract is "the most closely monitored contract in state government." "We have checks and double checks and triple checks ad nauseam."
Monday, after the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported the preliminary findings of two legislators who sued and got access to the graders' qualifications, Winn offered a more humble assessment: "There was less than satisfactory implementation of this contract."
Winn's oversight of the contract generously could have been called "less than satisfactory" if he hadn't gone to such lengths to hide the information and made such ill-informed public claims. Now his department's role is flatly indefensible.
The contract requires CTB/McGraw-Hill to hire graders with college degrees and expertise in the areas they grade. But an initial review by Democratic state Sens. Skip Campbell of Tamarac and Les Miller of Tampa uncovered as many as half who don't qualify. Some applicants cited degrees from universities that don't appear to exist. In less than 10 days, Campbell uncovered more about grading deficiencies than the department found in seven years.
In an era of high-stakes school accountability, the least accountable agency may be the Department of Education. It has misspent legislatively appropriated funds, bungled grants for technology, churned through staff in key programs and botched a plan for teacher performance pay. The voucher program was so rife with fraud and mismanagement that it attracted critical attention from law enforcement, state auditors and legislative committees.
In response to the unqualified FCAT graders, Winn displayed a smugness that has become all too typical. "Even on political fishing expeditions," he told reporters, "sometimes you catch a few fish." The point here is that DOE is supposed to be catching the mistakes, not leaving the work to others. High standards need to apply to more than just the teachers and their students.