TALLAHASSEE — Preliminary results released Monday show a dramatic decline in FCAT writing scores statewide, prompting state education officials to schedule an emergency meeting today to consider reducing the passing grade.
Although individual district scores were not released, Collier Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton blamed this year’s plummeting scores on the state’s heavier emphasis on grammar and punctuation, a high number of Collier students learning the English language, and scoring methods that used an average by two test scorers.
“We need to continue to work and obviously the state needs to continue to work,” Patton said. “We have more English language-learners. We have more work to do. Everybody has to be part of the solution.”
Collier ranked eighth highest in the state for English language learners, just under Lee County schools, she said.
Preliminary results released by the state Department of Education show only 27 percent of 4th graders earned a passing score of 4 or better on a 6-point scale, compared with 81 percent last year. Only 33 percent of eighth graders passed, down from 82 percent, while 38 percent of 10th graders received a passing score, a drop from 80 percent.
Education officials made this year’s test more difficult, increasing standards for punctuation, capitalization, spelling and sentence structure, as well as the quality of details used to explain, clarify or define. The pool of test takers also was expanded to include lower performing students and tests were graded by two reviewers — not one, as the state did 2011.
“If two people score, it’s going to be drastically different,” Patton said.
To improve writing skills, Collier students were encouraged to write freely and express their thoughts, she said. But that teaching method is the opposite of the FCAT’s focus on capitalization, grammar and punctuation.
Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Bonita Springs Charter School, didn’t want to comment until individual school scores are released. However, state education officials last month disclosed that most charter school students consistently outperformed their public school peers in nearly every subject.
The State Board of Education now must determine what to do with the scores, which are used to grade individual schools. Failing schools are required to add remedial programs, which are costly in already tight budget times.
“Based on preliminary results of the 2012 writing assessment, applying the 4.0 threshold in addition to the heightened scoring rules may have unforeseen adverse impacts upon school grades, warranting emergency review by the State Board of Education,” the department wrote, recommending an emergency meeting today to discuss a plan of action.
In the short term, the board suggested lowering the passing threshold from 4.0 to 3.5, which would dramatically increase passing scores. However, it still would be significantly less than 2011 scores.
Under the lower standards, 48 percent of fourth graders, 52 percent of eighth graders and 60 percent of 10th graders would have passed. But that’s still at least 20 points lower than last year’s scores.
Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said the dramatically lower scores point to the shortfalls of relying on such high-stakes tests for funding and student assessment.
“There have been a lot of parents over the years who have been unhappy with the assessments,” Pudlow said. “Hopefully this will give us a real opportunity to see how we should evaluate students and evaluate teachers”
FundEducationNow.org, an advocacy group, condemned the state education bureaucracy, saying the swing in grades shows the FCAT is a “multimillion dollar sham.”
A 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read, A Question of National Consequence,” found that frequent readers scored better on writing tests than non readers or infrequent readers and that Americans ages 15 to 24 spent almost two hours daily watching TV, but only seven minutes of daily leisure time reading.
Employers ranked reading and writing skills as top deficiencies in new hires, the study found, noting large corporate employers spent roughly $31 million to provide remedial writing courses, while state employers spent $221 million. The Internet also is partly to blame for a drop in reading for pleasure, according to a U.S. Department of Education study, which found 22 percent of 17-year-olds and 30 percent of 13-year-olds read “almost every day for fun” — online or in print — a significant drop from 20 years earlier.
The Associated Press and The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.