Florida parents and educators got some really bad news recently when the results of the 2012 FCAT writing tests were released by state education officials.
This year, only 27 percent of third graders got a passing grade of 4 out of 6 on this year's exam, compared to 81 percent last year. Tenth graders did a little better, with only 38 percent scoring 4 or better.
That's right, only about 1 in 4 of Florida school children can write at their grade level. That's pathetic.
The standards for the 2012 writing test were raised from previous years by the Florida Board of Education. The writing FCAT was graded by two readers instead of one, the passing grade was increased from 3.5 to 4.0 out of 6.0, and students were required to show greater proficiency in spelling, punctuation, and being able to intelligently make arguments in writing.The news caused the equivalent of a severe, collective panic attack in Tallahassee and in educational circles across the state.
The dismal FCAT results meant that many A-rated Florida schools would be downgraded across the state and failing schools districts would have to implement expensive remedial programs to address the issue.
The grade of a neighborhood school carries huge significance in Florida.
The grading of a school affects not only the amount of state aid it receives, but could also have a major impact on the attractiveness of various Florida cities in terms of quality of life rankings and pricing of homes in particular neighborhoods with schools with a subpar grade.
The subsequent reaction to the news was predictable.
Right away, the abysmal grades sparked a rush of renewed criticism of the FCAT test, the heavy emphasis of FCAT scores to improve educational accountability, and the use of the testing process as an accurate barometer of the educational aptitude of Florida students.
Predictably, too, in reaction to the test scores, Gov. Rick Scott issued a very melba toast statement about the meltdown: "Our students must know how to read and write, and our education system must be able to measure and benchmark their progress so we can set clear education goals."
No one got called on the carpet, or fired, by our no-nonsense business governor.
There was a dearth of silence about what the test results really showed: That Florida public school children are functionally illiterate.
The Florida Board of Education flew into crisis management and held an emergency meeting the next day where they unanimously voted to dumb down the FCAT writing threshold to match the results -- not last year's level of 3.5, but incredibly, even lower to 3.0.
If the passing score had been kept at 3.5, the percentage of fourth graders with passing scores would have risen only to 48 percent. With the 3.0 score, the figure was raised to 81 percent.
The rationale behind the lowering of the bar was that the Department of Education did not adequately prepare schools and teachers to teach to the test in terms of the more rigorous grammar and punctuation standards implemented this year.
The Florida Board of Education's incomprehensible knee-jerk reaction in actually dropping the writing standards lower than last year to match the results is profound proof that not only that it is more important to hide incompetency and failure rather than keep standards high, but that the board and the Department of Education are not willing to stand by their efforts to improve the Florida public school educational system.
Gen. George Patton once said, "The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom."
The writing scores showed that the Florida educational system has hit bottom and is failing our children. De-emphasizing failing by fixing scores and allowing functionally illiterate children to advance to the next grade is not the answer to starting to get kids to know how to read, write, and add.
The bottom line is that Florida children are receiving an F-rated education. A large majority of Florida kids still can't adequately read add, and write, no matter what standard is used.
This column appeared in the Op-Ed Section of the Sun Sentinel on May 17, 2012
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