Fla. Students Crash After State Raises Bar On Test

The Florida Board of Education has voted to temporarily lower the passing grade for its state writing test after a dramatic drop in scores on this year's exam. The state had made the test more difficult and raised the passing grade in an attempt to upgrade standards. But education officials were stunned when preliminary results showed the passing rate for 4th graders this year had plummeted from 80 percent to less than 30 percent.

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Those who want to raise standards on student achievement tests have suffered an embarrassing setback in Florida. The state made its writing exam harder and results plummeted. So the state is backtracking. It's now lowering its passing score and admitting something went wrong.

Sarah Gonzalez of member station WLRN has that story.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: About a dozen Florida school superintendents were at a conference in Orlando this week when the results of the state's new writing scores came in. The mood...

TIM MCGONEGAL: Disbelief, really - just like you just witnessed a car crash, and almost an intentional car crash.

GONZALEZ: Tim McGonegal is superintendent in Manatee County. He says everyone was expecting fewer students to pass, but not that few. Last year, 81-percent of fourth graders passed. This year, only 27 percent did.

And when Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson saw the dramatic drop...

GERARD ROBINSON: I realized that overnight students all of sudden just didn't become bad writers, and had to figure out: what is a scoring challenge or was it a challenge with the raising of standards and rigor?

GONZALEZ: The state board of education called an emergency meeting. And voted unanimously to lower the passing score immediately, so more kids pass.

Superintendent McGonegal calls it a knee-jerk reaction.

MCGONEGAL: For them just to put a Band-Aid on this issue, we're going to have this problem again next year and the year after that. If you're going to change the way you score that needs to be something that happens over a multi-year period, with tremendous amount of professional development for teachers.

GONZALEZ: The education commissioner admits the state didn't do a good job telling teachers the test would be graded differently. Roxanna Elden agrees. She teaches 10th grade writing in Miami. But she says putting a Band-Aid on the issue is better than doing nothing.

ROXANNA ELDEN: Personally, as a teacher, I would rather see them try to put a quick fix on this, than suddenly tell three-quarters of my students that they're failures.

GONZALEZ: The stakes are high. If students don't pass the states reading test, they can be held back. And the stakes are high for teachers, too.

ASHLEY KNOTT: My job is on the line, yes.

GONZALEZ: Ashley Knott teaches 8th grade language arts in Orlando. Standardized test scores make up 50 percent of every Florida teacher's evaluation. Next year, that evaluation will determine how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs.

Knott says teachers are starting to question whether the state's other standardized exams are even reliable.

KNOTT: It is very worrisome when we hear how the writing scores came back. What's going to happen with the reading scores? What's going to happen with the math scores?

GONZALEZ: Supporters of tougher standards still say it was time to raise the bar in Florida. Patricia Levesque is with the Foundation for Florida's Future, founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In the past, Levesque says essays were graded on things like a main argument, supporting ideas and having a conclusion.

PATRICIA LEVESQUE: But really important skills like spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, those were never part of how a student's essay was scored.

GONZALEZ: State education officials are confident the results are accurate. They're holding schools harmless this year to give them a fair warning. But they're telling schools tougher standards will be back next year. And this year, they're warning of significant declines in the reading and math scores due to come out soon.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez, in Miami.

SIEGEL: And that story is part of NPR's State Impact Florida Project, exploring the effect of state policy on people's lives.

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