The portion of Florida third graders who could be held back jumped to 18 percent this year as a result of low scores on the state's rigorous new standardized reading exam.
That figure represents 36,577 students who face possible retention -- up from 32,429 last year, according to the Associated Press. Students must score a 2 or better on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is graded on a 1 to 5 scale, to be promoted to the fourth grade. Students who fail have an opportunity for redemption on an alternative skills assessment, which could include a student work portfolio or summer courses.
Across the state, 56 percent of third-graders passed the reading exam with a score of 3 or higher -- officials were expecting students to score lower on the exams this year after the state raised the passing standard in December.
"The future success of third grade students depends on mastering essential reading skills," Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said in a statement Thursday. "Today's results help us determine how and where we should focus our resources so students who are struggling with reading get the extra help they need to succeed."
But for those who must take the state's writing exam, state officials lowered the passing score last week after realizing that 73 percent of its fourth graders and 67 percent of its eighth graders failed this year's FCAT. Moving the passing grade to a 3.0 from a 4.0 on a scale of six allowed 80 percent of fourth graders to pass, compared with a previous 27 percent, WTSP reports.
Also a result of this more generous curve, the percentage of eighth graders who passed leapt from 33 percent to 77 percent and the portion of tenth graders who passed rose from 38 percent to 84 percent.
The FCAT is a state-wide assessment that tests elementary, middle-and high-school students in a variety of subjects, including reading, math and writing. Beginning in the 2010-2011 academic year, state educators amped up the test's rigor by phasing in the more difficult FCAT 2.0. The following year, the number of passing scores plummeted. The number of eighth graders, for instance, who passed fell from 82 percent in 2011 to 33 percent in 2012. The scores are also controversially tied to teacher pay and performance assessments as well as schools' A through F letter grades.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Robinson attributes the downswing to tougher scoring standards he, himself, successfully advocated for.
"Students didn't just become illiterate," Robinson told the Sentinel. "It's because we've raised the standard."
Yet critics have pounced on this opportunity to highlight what they take to be fundamental flaws of the FCAT. They argue that FCAT reforms were ushered through at breakneck speed and without an eye to how they might affect those a the bottom of the distribution, like immigrant children whose first language is not English or students with learning disabilities. Parents are similarly frustrated.
"I was educated in Pinellas County 30 years ago," parent Diane Nicola told My FOX Tampa Bay. "I don't know if my kids' education is any better than I had 30 years ago, but I do know they have more testing."
The FCAT controversy also plunges Florida in the midst of the nation's white-hot education debate -- to test or not to test? -- inaugurated by the No Child Left Behind Act and fueled by policy endeavors to quantify learning through stringently and repeatedly testing students. Some testing naysayers argue that issues with the Florida FCAT epitomize the pitfalls of a test-centered educational culture.
"What we really need to do is use this as a wakeup call so that the education hierarchy in Florida gets together with the teachers and the administrators and the parents and figured out a better, more fair way of assessing how our students are doing and how our school system is doing," Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association told WTSP.
Lowering the passing grade in response to plunging test results may seem like a sly trick, but one thing is certain: Florida didn't invent it. In 2004, parents in Washington state celebrated a surge in student test scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning -- until it became clear that scores had skyrocketed largely because Washington schools Superintendant Terry Bergeson had lowered the exam's passing requirements.