The Board of Education decided in an emergency meeting Tuesday to lower the passing grade on the writing portion of Florida's standardized test after preliminary results showed a drastic drop in student passing scores.
The results indicated only about a third of students would pass this year's tougher Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test exam, compared with a passing rate of 80 percent or more last year.
"They've asked students to do more, but that's pretty dramatic," said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. "We need to examine what led to this, not just paper over the problem."
The results provide another opening to critics of high-stakes testing. The statewide teachers union has opposed Florida's use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers and grade schools.
"Our students must know how to read and write, and our education system must be able to measure and benchmark their progress so we can set clear education goals," said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement Monday. "The significant contrast in this year's writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results."
Results on the FCAT are the major factor for determining grades the state uses to reward top schools and sanction those at the bottom of the spectrum.
This is the first year students and schools will be assessed on the basis of tougher tests and scoring systems, expecting to result in more students failing the FCAT and lower school grades.
The board, though, agreed at its regular meeting last week not to let any school drop more than one letter grade this year to help them adjust to the rigorous new standards.
The writing exam was made more difficult by increasing expectations for proper punctuation, capitalization, spelling and sentence structure. The board also increased the passing grade from 3.5 to 4 on scale of zero to 6.
The preliminary results show only 27 percent of fourth-graders received a passing score compared with 81 percent last year.
For eighth-graders it was 33 percent — down from 82 percent in 2011. For 10th-graders it was 38 percent — a drop from 80 percent last year.
The lower passing score is expected to increase the number of students passing the exam to 48 percent for fourth grade, 52 percent for eighth grade and 60 percent for 10th grade, still well below last year's results.
"This incident again demonstrates that Florida school grades reflect profoundly political decisions, not objective measures of teaching and learning," said spokesman for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Jamaica Plain, Mass, Bob Schaeffer, in an email. "How can a measure which fluctuates from 81 percent to 27 percent 'proficient' in just one year even meet the laugh test?"
The Department of Education's notice for the proposed emergency rule says when the board approved the scoring changes it "did not have, and could not have had, impact data" that would show how those revisions would affect the results. It adds that the preliminary results now indicate "the heightened scoring rules may have unforeseen adverse impacts on school grades."
School grades factor into such decisions as closing low-performing schools or making faculty and administrative changes. Lower rated schools also lower the property values in the community.
Officials in some school districts have been preparing parents for bad FCAT news by sending letters home with students explaining that the tests have become more difficult to pass.
Other officials are pushing back.
School boards in Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties have passed a resolution against what they say is an over-reliance on high-stakes testing. Board members say the exams reduce time devoted to teaching and put unhealthy stress on students.
The resolution asks the state to develop a new assessment system that relies less on standardized testing and urges the federal government to reduce testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Florida is among nearly a dozen states that have received a waiver from No Child Left Behind. State education officials, though, say the waiver still requires high testing standards.
The Florida resolution is similar to one that 438 Texas school boards have signed. FairTest and other groups initiated the resolutions.