FCAT mistakes go beyond score

Published May 30, 2007

The casual manner in which Florida education officials acknowledged last week a massive miscalculation of reading test scores is as alarming as the errors themselves. It also speaks to why the Department of Education must be held to account. To the agency's great political fortune, the errors apparently accrued to the advantage of the 200, 000 third-grade students who took last year's reading FCAT. But the implications are obvious. Under state law, third-grade students who fail the reading test are generally required to repeat third grade. Imagine the student who was forced to repeat third grade because of a scoring error on the FCAT.

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

Gaetz promises legislative oversight, which is long overdue. But this is also a time for Gov. Charlie Crist to show whether he means what he says about the overreliance on standardized testing. When asked about the incident, Crist said: "It doesn't raise my confidence, I can tell you that." What, then, does he plan to do about it?

The way this test was botched, and the fact that it took a year to discover the errors, speaks to the larger problem. At DOE, professionalism has taken a back seat to ideology. Those who question the way business is conducted are treated as enemies and rooted out. In one telling incident in 2004, a voucher program administrator who raised questions about altered public records was fired. The man who had changed the records in an attempt to deceive an inquisitive newspaper kept his job.

Whether the subject has been voucher fraud or an FCAT calibration that punishes high schools or an oddball performance pay formula, the DOE has consistently resisted its critics. Last year, former Education Commissioner John Winn fought a public records request for the qualifications of people who score the written FCAT answers. He went so far as to label the request a "political fishing expedition" and categorically deny any problem: "We have checks and double checks and triple checks ad nauseam." As it turns out, the records revealed that janitors and popcorn salesmen were among those who graded the test, and roughly half failed to meet the required educational standards.

Winn surfaced again last week, asked to explain how he could have missed the errors last year. Leave aside that his boss, Gov. Jeb Bush, was at the time busy patting his own back for the unusually sharp increase: "We're shattering myths again." Winn now insists he ordered three groups to "triple check" the results but came up empty. One must presume, then, that he used the same "triple checking" method he employed with the scorers' qualifications.

For education accountability to work, DOE has to be willing to admit its own mistakes and learn from them. It has to be willing to listen to the education professionals in school districts who often are in a better position to know how policies can best be carried out. It has to get rid of its siege mentality, one which was described by former Education Board chairman Phil Handy as "attack" mode.

In calling for an independent review of the scoring errors, former DOE K-12 chancellor Jim Warford notes that the "fear and frustration remain high" among teachers. "Jeb Bush won the accountability wars, " Warford writes. "But it will be left to Gov. Charlie Crist to win the peace. ... He must win the hearts and minds of our public school leaders and teachers by giving them a voice."

If Crist means what he says, he won't wait for legislative hearings to begin asking his own questions. The scoring error, unfortunately, is just a symptom of a larger problem.