Once again, the Florida Department of Education has delivered fresh fodder to critics of the increasingly maligned Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Just nine days after announcing the annual grades for elementary and middle schools, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson announced that grades were wrong for 213 schools statewide, including 17 in Hillsborough County.
Officials quietly notified 40 affected superintendents by phone on Friday, rather than announcing them at a media conference call as occurs when school grades are disclosed each year.
That annoyed Hillsborough school board member Jack Lamb, an outspoken critic of the FCAT, who was disturbed about the way the news was disclosed.
"It leaves a lot to be desired," he said.
Candy Olson, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board, expressed distrust of the results and how they are assessed.
"This is only what they've admitted to," she said. "Because they're so secretive, we don't know how accurate they are."
Robinson was traveling and unable to return calls Monday, said department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters. Since May, Robinson has been crisscrossing the state to listen to parents' concerns about testing.
A notice posted on the DOE website Friday evening said a "continuous review process" identified the incorrect scores. This was despite an independent validation by Florida State University conducted before the grades were released July 11.
The notice said that between the time the school grades are first reported and the final school grades, an appeals process is completed. No other explanation was given for the errors.
However, in the past, that process has been initiated by the individual school districts disputing a limited number of schools' grades. In Hillsborough, that might be two or three each year. The district had not begun any appeals at the time the mistakes were announced.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she was pleased that some Hillsborough schools improved and glad the state quickly admitted the error.
"It's a year of so many changes, and yes, I'm sure everyone from Commissioner Robinson to everyone affiliated with the assessment all wish it had been perfect," she said.
In a prepared statement, Robinson acknowledged that school grades are important to students, parents, teachers, principals and the rest of the community.
"And, while I am pleased that the continuous review process has resulted in better grades, we will continue to look for ways to improve the grade calculation process," he said.
Lamb is the Hillsborough school district's representative on the Florida School Boards Association, which recently passed a resolution criticizing high-stakes testing, such as that used to calculate school grades.
"The commissioner chewed us out for that," Lamb said. "He chastened us for not supporting it. But there's a whole movement nationally that's critical of high-stakes testing.
"We're not creating well-prepared students anymore. This just shows the tests' credibility is in question."
Although the FCAT's reviews by the public generally have been lousy since testing began in 1997, this year brought a record number of changes and glitches that have frustrated teachers, parents, students and administrators.
Gov. Rick Scott said he has received more complaints from parents this year than ever before, citing more than 800 after the FCAT writing test alone.
The first indication that this year would be particularly rocky came when preliminary results showed that only one-third of children statewide would pass the writing test. Teachers said they were not informed that the test would include a crackdown on spelling, punctuation, capitalization and other grammar rules. In light of the dismal results, the state lowered the grade needed to pass, leading to complaints that the test is arbitrary.
Then, almost 36,000 third-graders statewide learned they were in danger of not passing on to fourth grade due to failing reading scores. In Hillsborough County, almost one in five students failed, compared to 80 percent who passed in the 2010-2011 school year.
Also, changes to the way the test scores are calculated – including counting the scores of students with disabilities and those learning English – likely caused overall scores to sink. To mitigate the damage, the state decided that no school would drop more than one letter grade this year.
None of the 213 schools lost a grade.
In Hillsborough County, the percentage of schools earning an A or B went from 73 percent last year to 61 percent, counting the schools with corrected grades.
Although Florida teachers' unions have long criticized the linking of test scores to teacher pay, others have begun speaking out against the FCAT – some from unlikely quarters.
Earlier this month, while saying that parents want accountability, Scott nevertheless said Florida students take too many tests and predicted that FCAT changes are likely.
Last month, the FSBA's resolution criticized high-stakes testing for its "instability and unreliability" in accurately measuring student performance. It is "at best, confusing and misleading to students and their families and, at worst, punitive to students," it wrote.