An emergency rule adopted today will lower the passing grade for Florida's standardized writing test to keep the failure rate about the same as last year after preliminary results showed it would have dramatically increased otherwise.
The State Board of Education unanimously passed the rule. Without it, only about a third of students would have passed the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, compared to 80 percent or better last year.
The passing grade will drop from four to three on a zero-to-six scale. The writing test is given in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades.
"When I saw the dramatic drop in scores, I realized that overnight students all of a sudden didn't become bad writers," Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson told the board.
Robinson acknowledged some things "slipped through" the Department of Education but promised they would be corrected. The department failed to sufficiently stress changes in this year's test to school districts and teachers, he said.
Before the school year, the board increased the cut-off from 3.5 to four while also making the test tougher by increasing emphasis on such conventions as spelling, punctuation and capitalization as well as well as the quality of details used to explain, clarify and define.
Another factor that may have contributed to the lower results was the use of two graders instead of one to score each test, Robinson said.
In response to critics' calls for an independent investigation, Robinson cited a routine outside audit of testing procedures that's already under way. He said an internal investigation also will focus on finding out exactly what went wrong.
The state contracts with NCS Pearson to provide and score the FCAT. Florida fined the company two years ago for delays in getting the tests graded.
The lower passing grade doesn't reduce the test's rigor, board members said. Most have strong ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush who instituted higher standards and high-stakes testing and continues to advocate for them.
"Optically, a change from 4.0 to 3.0 looks like we are lowering standards, and I for one am against that," said John Padgett, a Key West businessman who once was Bush's appointee as Monroe County's school superintendent. "I'm only voting for this as kind of a hold-harmless for this year only."
Padgett said "we should not have a surprise" so late in the school year.
Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan, a former Bush chief of staff, agreed higher standards should remain the goal.
"But there also has to be a time to take a breath and assess how the kids and the districts are doing against the measurement," Shanahan said.
Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, issued a statement praising the board for providing "stability to Florida's school grading and accountability system."
The vote came during a conference call after the board heard public comment, much of it critical of Florida's testing emphasis.
"We are testing our students to death and we are taking instructional time away from teachers to do it," Flagler County reading coach Mella Baxter said.
Lowering the passing grade "only covers up the problem," Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said later in a statement. The statewide teachers union opposes standardized tests for grading schools and assessing teachers.
"When Jeb Bush was first elected governor, we pointed out that there was no independent research that says this approach was positive for children or our public schools," Ford said. "There is still no credible research that says that this testing madness helps educate our children well."
FCAT reading and math exams similarly are tougher this year. As a result, A-to-F grades for schools are expected to be lower. The grades are used to reward top schools and sanction those that get failing marks. At its regular meeting last week, the board voted not to let any school drop more than one letter grade to soften the blow.
Last year, 81 percent of fourth-graders passed the writing test, but the preliminary results showed that would drop to 27 percent. The emergency rule will keep it at 81 percent.
The rule will result in 77 percent of eighth graders passing compared to 82 percent last year. Without the rule, only 33 percent would have passed.
For 10th grader, it will increase the passing rate from 38 percent to 84 percent. Last year it was 80 percent.
Robinson initially proposed dropping the passing rate only to 3.5, but that would still have resulted in dramatically lower passing rates: 48 percent for fourth grade, 52 percent for eighth grade and 60 percent for 10th grade.