State might stop some penalties for FCAT scores

An advisory panel wants to alter the system.

Published June 14, 2007

TAMPA - The state might stop penalizing schools where a majority of the lowest-performing students fail to make gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The proposal was brought up Wednesday during a meeting of a recently created FCAT advisory panel, and is expected to go before the state Board of Education on Tuesday for approval.

State education officials said the move would help them calculate and release school grades by July.

The grading process has been delayed by the discovery of a scoring error with last year's third-grade reading test. Because of the error, which inflated the reading scores, it can't yet be determined whether this year's fourth-graders made reading gains.

The recommendation to remove the penalties, however, goes far beyond the third-grade test, and could affect every school in the state.

It also indicates that members of the FCAT advisory panel have their eyes on a much larger goal: making changes to the accountability system that has been all but impregnable since its inception.

"In an eight-year accountability process, this is the first open review, and it's a good thing," Orange County school superintendent Ron Blocker said. "You can't pull the covers back on this third-grade test and not find out if there are issues that are related."

Blocker and others on the panel cheered the department's idea of doing away with the grading penalty, in which a school loses a letter grade if more than half of its lowest-performing students haven't made gains. They've been pushing to eliminate the controversial provision for years.

That's part of the reason interim Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg was willing to entertain the idea in the first place. The state has no way in the short term to determine whether this year's fourth-graders made gains from last year's flawed test, so it would have to disregard the measure for many schools anyway, Blomberg observed.

The scoring problem simply accelerated action, she said. The department already had planned to look into other, less punitive ways to keep schools focused on helping the lowest performers.

She rejected the notion that the move would water down the value of a school's state grade.

"We're not lowering standards in terms of our expectations," Blomberg said. "What we would be doing is changing a component of how we calculate a school grade."

She said other issues relating to the state's accountability program could come open for revision once the third-grade issue is put to rest. The panel put Brevard County superintendent Richard DePatri in charge of a subcommittee that will deal with technical matters relating to the third-grade test, including the selection of an independent auditing team.

Blomberg asked panel members what items they would like to put "in the parking lot" for policy consideration. The topics flew fast and furious.

One spoke of concerns over the FCAT writing test. Another mentioned the need to ensure that Level 3, or achieving at grade level, means the same thing in all grades. There have been concerns that earning a Level 3 in high school is much harder than doing so in elementary or middle school.

"Well, we might have to start meeting weekly," Blomberg said, getting one of the few laughs of the 3 1/2 hour meeting.

Superintendents participating in the session welcomed the chance to have input.

"We're all putting things on the table that have been on our minds for years," Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.