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    Crist works late to make tough FCAT essays count

    An earlier deal to count only mutiple choice questions was struck to speed grading. Charlie Crist doesn't like it.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    Students in Hillsborough County and several other Florida counties will sit down to take the FCAT test today not knowing whether some of the answers will count toward their scores.

    Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, unhappy with an agreement to leave the essay-type answers out of the scores, spent much of the day Monday trying to devise a plan to make the so-called "performance items" count.

    He was expected to make an announcement on the plan Monday. But late Monday, Crist said it probably will take another day.

    "I think we're close to finding a way," Crist said. "I've been hearing from teachers that students may perceive that the essay parts don't count at all. We're trying to find a way to include as much as we can."

    If students have gotten the impression the essay parts don't count, there's a good reason: They don't -- at least not in terms of students' individual scores and their school's A-through-F performance grade. Under a compromise with the company that scores the tests, former Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher agreed to base scores on the multiple choice items. In return, the testing company, NCS Pearson, agreed to provide results faster. The compromise came after the state suffered through the embarrassment of having the scores come back weeks late, well after school was out for the summer.

    Crist inherited the agreement and has made it clear for weeks that he was unhappy with it. Now he's trying to reverse it.

    The indecision is cause for consternation among educators, who are wondering what effect it will have on students taking the test.

    "We've been telling kids all along that they need to be ready for those performance items, but how are they going to react? I don't know," said John Hilderbrand, director of testing for Hillsborough County schools. "Especially the older kids, if they hear that it's not going to count toward their school grade, that could have an impact. Then they hear 'Oh, now it does count.' "

    Most Florida school districts are scheduled to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test math and reading portions next week. A few, including Hillsborough, are taking the test this week. The writing test, which is unaffected by the agreement, was taken in February.

    Crist declined to reveal the details of his plan late Monday. As for why he decided to make a change in the middle of the testing season, he said that only after discussions with teachers and with Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, did he realize that he might be able to make a change now, as opposed to waiting until next year.

    Arza, a high school teacher, has definite opinions about the test.

    "If you take those performance items out of the FCAT, all you have is another multiple choice test. They need to be counted," Arza said. "Charlie inherited this situation. He said to me, "Ralph, this doesn't make sense.' "

    It won't be easy for NCS Pearson to change its procedures, especially this late. The company agreed to administer the test later this year and return it earlier. Last year, the state's chief testing official estimated that in addition to machine scoring most of the answer sheets, NCS Pearson had to read roughly 23-million essay answers in reading and math. One of the reasons test results were late last year is that the company had trouble finding enough qualified readers to do the job.

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