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Change is the rule with FCAT

As the state keeps changing the way it evaluates the test scores, Pasco's schools have to aim at an ever-shifting target.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


If there's one thing educators have learned about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, it's that the centerpiece of the state's school reform effort is very much a work in progress.

That means but one thing for teachers: an accountability system in which the rules are almost always in flux.

Teachers say it only adds to the anxiety they already feel about the exams, which the state, public and media use to evaluate how well they are doing their jobs.

Teachers have realized that the FCAT and the state's controversial school grading system aren't going away. At this point, they would be content with program rules that didn't change from year to year.

"We need to know the rules up front," said Seven Springs Middle School principal Roni Sushko. "We just want somebody to come and tell us exactly what we're being held accountable for."

This year's big change involves how the state will calculate the grades, A through F, that it gives to each school. The latest change effectively wipes one of the test's most distinctive features out of the school grading equation.

Since its inception, the FCAT has been heralded as a step above typical standardized tests. Some portions of the FCAT require students to write "extended responses" -- short essays in which they must explain how they arrived at their answers. Most standardized tests don't do that, instead requiring students to simply answer a litany of multiple-choice questions.

But this year, the extended-response questions won't count toward a school's grade. Although those types of questions will remain on the exam, only the scores generated from the FCAT's multiple-choice questions will be used to evaluate Florida schools.

Last year the state changed the FCAT rules, too. At the request of teachers the state eliminated the scores of students who move around a lot. Educators argued that they shouldn't be held responsible for the scores of children who moved into their schools just before the exams. The state agreed and the change eventually led to about 130 schools getting higher grades then they would have under the old rules, recently released data shows.

The state also eliminated requirements that schools must have lower-than-average suspension and absentee rates in order to qualify for the state's highest rankings and the cash rewards that come with them. During the first year of testing, the state surprised many schools by instituting the attendance requirement weeks after schools administered the exams.

The state keeps monkeying with the FCAT because lawmakers are trying to squeeze it into an accountability system that it wasn't designed to support, said Katherine Divine, Pasco County's director of research and evaluation.

Divine said the state has eliminated the extended-response questions from the school rating formula this year because the company that oversees the test can't get the exams graded in time. Last year FCAT scores didn't come back to the state until after schools closed for the summer. The late return cost the company $3.7-million in fines.

The FCAT was first administered in 1998, and it was created to gauge how well students are progressing toward state graduation standards. It was never meant to measure the quality of schools, which is exactly how the state uses scores under Gov. Jeb Bush's improvement program, Divine said.

The constant changes make it hard for parents and teachers to understand exactly how that program works, she added.

"The (accountability system) isn't so bad if you know the rules and if the state sticks to them," Divine said. "But the changes make it extremely difficult for teachers and principals to explain it to parents and the community. Maybe this will all eventually settle down."

In the meantime, principals are advising teachers to keep plugging along with their lessons as if there were no FCAT changes.

"The most important thing is that they keep teaching the little youngsters," said Mary Giella Elementary principal Eva Hunsberger. "If we just keep our eyes on the kids, then we'll be okay."

At Pasco High, assistant principal Myra Croft isn't even going to tell students that the extended response questions won't count toward the school grades because she doesn't want students to think that the questions aren't important.

Schools still will receive the scores for those questions, and they will use them to determine the placement of students for the next school year, she said.

"I'm going to tell the kids the same thing I told them last year," Croft said. "Answer all the questions you can the best you can. We know this test is a work in progress."

- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com.

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