Higher FCAT standards could hurt graduation rates, officials say

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Fewer students in Southwest Florida and around the state are expected to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2012 due to higher scoring standards approved Monday by the state Board of Education.

The State announced a higher minimum score or "cut-score" for the newly revised state reading and mathematics test. The reading test is administered from grades three to 10. The math test is given to grades three to eight.

"This will continue to raise the bar for all students. I emphasize all students, including minorities," board member Akshay Desai said.

The higher standards are needed to help Florida students compete nationally and globally and to help students be more "college-ready," state education board members said. It is the first time in a decade Florida has revised the scores.

But administrators fear that the new scores will make it more difficult for students to graduate high school. Tenth graders must pass the state test or an equivalent to graduate.

The higher minimum score could decrease the percentage of tenth graders who pass the reading test from 60 percent to 52 percent statewide, officials said. Students currently have five opportunities to pass the assessment before their scheduled graduation.

Lee Superintendent Joseph Burke said the change is a good thing. Initially, the test will result in dips in student and school performance, but he said those dips will be temporary.

Last year, about 4,500 students statewide — out of a class of more than 150,000 — did not earn diplomas solely because they hadn't passed the FCAT, state data show. Nearly 10,500 never passed the FCAT but managed to do well enough on the ACT or SAT so they were able to substitute those scores for a passing FCAT score.

The new scores could mean an additional 400 students in Lee schools would not pass the FCAT in spring 2012, Burke said. Collier schools did not have comparable data.

"That means school grades could slip; more students may be retained in third grade; more students may have to take remedial courses rather than electives; and fewer students may meet the requirements to graduate from high school," Burke said.

Based on past increases in standards, Burke said he expects performance to meet and exceed minimum requirements.

"What will be lasting is that our children will be learning more at each grade level and they will be at a higher academic level tomorrow than they are today," he said.

With the new scores, third graders will be required to achieve at or above standard on the FCAT 2.0 to be promoted to fourth grade. Last year, 72 percent of third graders achieved at that level. With the new scores, 57 percent of third graders are projected to meet or exceed the standard.

Students in third grade who do not pass the test still can be promoted to fourth grade if they participate in summer school classes or if a teacher thinks the student's academic achievements meet the requirements for fourth grade.

Susan McNally, executive director of secondary programs for Collier schools, is supportive of a more challenging assessment, but is skeptical about the higher scoring standards. She said assessing 10th grade students for college-readiness is too early.

"With two more years, maybe then they'll be college-ready," McNally said.

Increasing standards doesn't translate to an increase in the quality of learning, she said.

"When you put in an arbitrarily high bar for students to jump over, it doesn't equate to students getting a better education," she said.

Overall, McNally said the test has become much more challenging. She said the FCAT 2.0 is more complex, answers have to be inferred rather than found in the language and the questions are asked differently.

The new version of the FCAT was implemented last year. This is the first year the test will be graded with the higher scoring standards.

In 2014, the FCAT 2.0 will be replaced by the common core standards, a national assessment to be adopted by states. McNally said the FCAT 2.0 and the new "cut-scores" will "absolutely help better prepare students for the common core standards."

The changes approved today begin with this year's 10th graders and will take effect with the FCAT exams taken this spring.

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