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FCAT high school goals to be reviewed
At Hillsborough's urging, the state will check if standards for older students are reasonable.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 3, 2007
ORLANDO - A high-profile state advisory group is calling for an independent review of the fairness of FCAT expectations for high school students.
Led by Hillsborough County, school leaders across the state are questioning whether higher standards set for students in upper grade levels are reasonable. They point to dramatic evidence: Beginning in the eighth grade, student success rates on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test plunge. But the same kids continue to do well on a national test given at the same time.
Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is urging action. During a meeting Tuesday in Orlando of a recently established FCAT advisory group, Elia and Hillsborough's assessment director pitched a plan that would even out the standards.
"When we know we have a problem, we need to address the problem," said Elia, who is serving on the panel.
Florida Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg agreed that the matter needed review, but she stopped short of embracing Hillsborough's plan to lower the ninth- and 10th-grade reading cut scores that decide which students make the bar for proficiency under the state's high stakes accountability system.
"We have a problem, no question there," Blomberg said. "I don't see this as a quick fix."
She noted that many factors may play into the high school results, where Florida is not seeing the same gains as at lower grade levels. For the past seven years, about one-third of 10th-graders have met the FCAT reading standards.
The FCAT advisory group agreed to refer the issue to experts at the Buros Center for Testing at the University of Nebraska.
The advisory group of district superintendents, testing directors and state officials was established after the disclosure that a scoring error may have inflated last year's third-grade FCAT reading scores.
In a preliminary report on the scoring debacle, the Buros Center is recommending that Florida increase the size of the sample group of students used to "equate" the difficulty level of the test from one year to the next.
The panel also cleared Blomberg to move forward on a smaller issue: lessening the sting of penalties for schools where a majority of the lowest-performing students fail to make gains on the FCAT.
Under current policy, schools may be punished a full letter grade if they fall shy, no matter how much improvement they saw. An alternative crafted by the Seminole County school district would reward schools making significant gains. But to make sure that a spotlight remains on struggling students, schools still would be penalized for falling backward.
Had the proposal been in place, it would have helped about two dozen of the 136 schools punished under the provision this past year, mostly helping high schools.
But some lamented that it didn't address the underlying high school issues.
"This is at least a very minimal first step, but there is a systemic problem," said Orange County Superintendent Ron Blocker. "Every year we don't deal with it is going to be every year that high schools are going to be hit with a learning gains problem with a faulty premise."
Pinellas County Superintendent Clayton Wilcox does not sit on the panel, but is following the discussion closely. He has been comparing notes with Hillsborough.
"It's clear when you look at the placement of the cut scores that they were somewhat arbitrary," he said. "They were not consistent with the logic of the elementary scores."
Wilcox added that families want to see a "consistently reliable" measure of their child's success across all grades. In Pinellas, he has identified students who test in the 75th percentile of the nation on another assessment, but because of the high cut scores for FCAT are taking remedial reading and missing out on elective opportunities.
Similar stories were shared Tuesday by school leaders in other districts, who questioned how the cut scores were set. The decisions date to 1998 and 2001, when Florida officials asked teachers to help set the initial cut scores. After the teachers adjourned, state education officials raised the reading bar and lowered the math standards in the upper grade levels.
"We need to look back at maybe they were right in the first place," said Brevard County Superintendent Rich DiPatri, noting that it wouldn't be easy to make a downward adjustment. "You have the political problem. The refrain is going to be you're lowering standards."
Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.