FCAT fiasco: Scores wrong

Hundreds of thousands of third-graders' tests will be reviewed.

Published May 24, 2007

State education officials said Wednesday that they botched one of last year's FCAT tests, putting question marks on everything from school grades and student retention to the status of Florida schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

As a remedy, the Department of Education promised an independent panel of experts would audit the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test every year to make sure there are no future glitches.

But the damage was done. FCAT critics said I told you so. Defenders groaned. And a powerful state senator called for public hearings to find out what the DOE knew and when.

"The last thing I want to do is pander to those who say we never liked the FCAT, we never liked accountability," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former Okaloosa County school superintendent who now chairs the Senate Education Committee. "But this is a shot below the water line, and it's self-inflicted."

Said Gov. Charlie Crist: "It doesn't raise my confidence, I can tell you that."

Wednesday's admission by Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg came in response to a reporter's question during a routine news conference on FCAT scores. The revelation quickly overshadowed the release of reading, math and science data and handed FCAT critics their most potent argument yet for reducing the state's reliance on the test.

Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida began using the FCAT to determine how schools would be graded, whether third-graders should be held back and whether high school seniors could graduate. FCAT scores are also used by federal officials to determine whether Florida schools should face sanctions for failing to meet standards under No Child Left Behind, which requires that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Some independent experts credit Bush's FCAT-heavy system for boosting the performance of Florida students on national tests that are widely considered to be credible. But for many teachers and parents, the FCAT remains an object of scorn and the butt of jokes.

The test at issue is last year's FCAT for third-graders in reading.

Last year's results showed 75 percent of third-graders had passed, a record year-to-year spike of 8 percentage points. But red flags went up three weeks ago, when the release of this year's third-grade results showed only 69 percent had passed -- a record drop.

A subsequent DOE review determined last year's test was not "equated" properly -- meaning it was made too easy. The equating process is overseen jointly by department officials and Harcourt Assessment, the testing company contracted by the state to develop the FCAT.

Department officials said all of the more than 200,000 tests from last year will be rescored in coming weeks with the help of independent experts, including district superintendents and testing directors.

They said they did not know how much the rescoring will cost, or how big an adjustment might have to be made. But regardless, last year's school grades will not be readjusted and last year's third-graders will not face any new risk of retention.

Third-graders who should have been held back, however, will be identified so they can be "given whatever resources are needed" to stay on track, Blomberg said.

DOE officials also said they reviewed every other FCAT used in the past two years and were confident the other scores were accurate.

Still, critics pounced.

"We made it too easy?" asked an incredulous Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

"The way they grade schools almost seems like a magic wand," said Lynne Webb, the teachers union president in Pasco County.

Even a leading national critic weighed in.

Floridians "need to know whether 2006 scores were manipulated to make outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush and his signature education program look good," Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said in an e-mail.

Flushed out by all the barbs, Bush -- who has laid low since he left office -- said in a statement Wednesday night that the DOE deserves credit for finding the problem and beginning a fix.

"As we hold our schools accountable for student learning, we should also hold the Department of Education accountable for ensuring the integrity and validity of the FCAT," he said.

Wednesday's disclosure was the latest in a recent string of events calling into question the FCAT's reliability.

Last summer, former Education Commissioner John Winn acknowledged -- after two Democratic Senate leaders filed suit -- that some temporary workers hired to grade FCAT essays didn't have the college degrees required under a state testing contract. And last month, the St. Petersburg Times reported Florida education officials knowingly created an FCAT system that holds students in different grades to different standards.

Gaetz, the state senator, said the trouble with the 2006 test seems to be "more of a DOE problem than an FCAT problem."

He said he'll be asking Senate President Ken Pruitt for permission to hold hearings. Among his questions: When did the DOE first realize there might be a problem? And how did it react?

"If this problem was known about weeks ago or months ago and wasn't fully revealed to parents and teachers and schools, then I think there's not just a competence problem, but an integrity problem," he said.

In a lengthy statement, Commissioner Blomberg said she was "troubled" by the big drop in this year's third-grade scores and immediately ordered a review. But it remains unclear whether anybody at DOE or Harcourt asked questions last year, when the results showed a spike bigger than the previous three years combined.

"There can be changes in instruction or policy that can have an effect, a sometimes dramatic effect, on proficiency levels, " said Harcourt spokesman Russell Schweiss, who served as Bush's press secretary until joining Harcourt last summer. "The flag goes up when you see that it's not sustained. That's what was seen this year."

Does that mean nobody at Harcourt asked questions last year?

"I don't know," Schweiss said. "I will ask around. But I would suggest talking to DOE."

Times staff writers Jeffrey Solochek and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.


FCAT results can be found at http://fcat.fldoe.org/


Q: How did this happen?

A: The FCAT includes a set of "anchor questions" that ensure the level of difficulty is consistent from year to year. Department of Education officials say some of the anchor questions for the 2006 third grade reading test were, essentially, too easy. DOE works with the FCAT developer, Harcourt Assessment, to oversee this part of the process.

Q: What happens next?

A: Next week, the DOE will convene an outside panel of experts, including superintendent and district testing directors, to review the test in question. The group will recommend ways to review all FCAT tests annually to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Q: What should concerned parents do?

A: For now, wait. In the next few weeks, the DOE expects to re-score more than 200, 000 tests taken by last year's third-graders. The re-scored results will then be sent to schools for dissemination to parents.