In the old days of FCAT writing, those who scored the tests didn't give much of a hoot if students weren't too sharp on capitalization, punctuation, spelling or grammar.
All that changed this year, and the scores statewide plummeted.
That wasn't the only difference in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The state had upped the score required for passing. And it altered the number of people who look at each paper.
"It just seemed to me that Florida tried to change too many things at once. We have too many balls up in the air and are unsure of where they will land," said Megan Allen, the 2010 teacher of the year for the state who now is an educator in residence at the University of Central Florida.
"I feel it was very unfair to our teachers, and most importantly our students. I feel like we are setting them up for failure, despite the fact that I have seen elementary writing performance increase," said Allen, who formerly taught fourth grade at Cleveland Elementary in Tampa.
"They are writing their little hearts out. Our students have made so much progress in the past few years, and yes we do have some ways to go, but we need to move ahead sensibly, not setting up our students to fail."
Teachers aren't happy. Parents are miffed. Lots of people are taking aim at the Florida Department of Education.
"This is what happens when you have a system driven by high-stakes tests where politicians can arbitrarily change the rules," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "And when they change the rules, they don't adequately notify everybody."
State education officials admit they could have done a better job communicating changes in the way the test would be scored. But they say the changes were necessary as the state prepares for even more rigorous testing in a couple of years.
"Our standards have not been changed in 10 years," said Jamie Mongiovi, a spokeswoman for the education department. "It's time for kids to know how to punctuate a sentence."
The plunge in the number of students who passed was alarming.
For fourth-graders, preliminary results showed only 27 percent passed the test, compared with 81 percent last year. In eighth grade, the passing number was at 33 percent compared with 82 percent a year ago. In 10th grade, the drop was from 80 percent passing to 38 percent.
In the end, state officials at an emergency meeting last week dropped the passing score from a 4 to a 3 on a 6-point scale.
"I think the lesson here is that accountability systems always depend on administrators of the system managing to avoid politically unacceptable levels of failure," said Sherman Dorn, a University of South Florida professor. "It looks like the Florida Board of Education adopted a macho attitude instead of a realistic one.
"When you do this, there is a cost. The first cost is the credibility of the entire system," Dorn added. "What people are going to remember is this: There was a totally unrealistic expectation of changing kids' writing habits in one year."
Dorn wonders why the state didn't take writing samples from prior years and see what the ramifications of the grading changes were.
"The way you change expectations and practices in schools is usually incremental," he said. "I think somebody needs to knock the heads together on the Board of Education. They need to look in the mirror, every single one of them, and figure out what the heck they did — and decide maybe they shouldn't be so macho when children's lives are at stake."
There is plenty more at stake as well.
School grades are tied into FCAT scores. Forty percent of teacher evaluations are linked to how students perform on the high-stakes tests.
"Teachers are worried about this," Baxter-Jenkins said. "Any system where you can have the kind of dramatic drop that we saw, it doesn't make anyone very confident about the system as a whole."
John Stewart, superintendent of the Pinellas County school district, was not happy with the low scores. And he continues to be a critic of the test.
"What message do you send when you have a test that most everybody is failing?" he asked. "There are more questions about this whole process than there are answers for it.
"The whole issue of high-stakes testing causes angst in the students, angst in the teachers," Stewart said. "And angst is not a good thing. There's nobody happy with this."
Allen, who now teaches tomorrow's teachers, believes that 45 minutes is not long enough for students to craft a piece of writing that they can go back and revise and edit and offer as a polished piece. She wonders whether a portfolio of writing can better show a student's progress than one piece cranked out in less than one hour.
"I think all our students want to do is succeed for themselves and their teachers and their families," she said. "They see this as their chance to show off and do their best piece of writing.
"To have someone tell them it's not good enough can be really devastating."
To learn more
The state Department of Education plans outreach efforts beginning Monday to communicate with parents about FCAT and other issues.
By phone: 1-866-507-1109 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.
By Web: floridapathtosuccess.org
By email: firstname.lastname@example.org