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FCAT decline brought panic
State officials scrambled to explain the drop in third-grade scores.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 6, 2007
After announcing in early May that third-grade FCAT scores had suddenly taken a plunge, top education officials scrambled to find not only a reason, but a reason that would make sense to an FCAT-weary public.
E-mails obtained by the St. Petersburg Times last week show leaders at the Department of Education were under the gun - and at times baffled - in the weeks preceding the bombshell May 23 disclosure that the department had botched the 2006 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for more than 200,000 third-graders.
On May 13, a Sunday, the department's testing director, Cornelia Orr, told Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg that a staff analysis had so far found no evidence of a smoking gun or a silver bullet. "Despite how much we may want one clear answer and a clear resolution, I can't ensure this will happen," Orr wrote.
Blomberg was not satisfied.
"In response to a 'smoking gun' or 'silver bullet' - I have one responsibility and that is to provide a credible explanation to the public," she responded. "Again, an 8 percent increase in one year and a 6 percent decrease in the next year is not by chance - the explanation may be one factor or a combination of factors and there is an explanation."
Blomberg continued: "And further, whatever the explanation is - it must be communicated in an understandable manner. I know this is not an easy task, but we don't have a choice."
The Times request, filed on May 23, covered e-mails and other correspondence regarding the test in question, and covered both 2006 and 2007.
The more than 200 e-mails that surfaced do not shed additional light on a key question: whether Education Department officials or anybody else raised a red flag in 2006, when results showed the biggest one-year gains ever for third-graders on the reading portion of the FCAT. To date, the only explanation for what happened then was offered by former Education Commissioner John Winn in a May 24 interview with the Times.
Ultimately, officials concluded the problem lay with the difficulty and placement of "anchor questions," which allow testing experts to "equate" test scores from one year to the next.
Three weeks ago, a task force recommended the department hire the Buros Institute at the University of Nebraska to determine, among other things, if the department's conclusions are correct. Its recommendations on that issue are due in October.
In the meantime, the task force continues to look at broader questions regarding the FCAT. And critics continue to keep the heat on.
In a letter to Blomberg this week, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said his committee still intends to hold hearings on the FCAT so it can decide "whether legislation may be necessary in order to protect the integrity of the FCAT and preserve and strengthen the state's educational accountability system."
Gaetz said in an interview that he expected Education Department and Buros Institute officials to testify. He also said he anticipated asking Winn to appear.
"I'm more interested in a comprehensive review of the FCAT than I am in just drilling down to what happened" with the 2006 test, Gaetz said. "I believe the credibility of the FCAT is in question and the credibility of academic accountability."
The e-mails suggest department officials, particularly Blomberg, shared that concern.
A 31-year department veteran, Blomberg was tapped by the Board of Education as interim commissioner after Winn abruptly resigned. She is not seeking the permanent post.
On May 5, a Saturday, Blomberg e-mailed Orr and Jay Pfeiffer, who directs the department's accountability, research and measurement office. "I am not pleased" about still not having charts she was supposed to get the day before, she wrote. "I am under tremendous pressure to provide answers."
A week later, Blomberg wrote Orr again: "I thought you said we would have results on Friday afternoon or Monday and now it is Wednesday. I do not want to provide the information in your talking points without having the results. All it will do is create the same confusion that I have dealt with over the past two weeks."
Following the May 23 disclosure, department officials took comfort where they could.
A few hours after the press conference, K-12 chancellor Cheri Yecke e-mailed Blomberg and others about a comment she got from an official with the superintendents association.
The official said a Miami Herald reporter told him she "had never seen such openness from DOE and how refreshing it was that 'guilt' was admitted and action taken."
"So," Yecke wrote, "all of the news may not be totally bad."