williard_t_fair.jpgThe Florida Department of Education (FDOE) is raising the bar for student achievement and success levels statewide by transitioning the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) grading system.

The new assessments will be more rigorous, according to Edward Croft, FDOE’s bureau chief for accountability reporting. Croft’s remarks came during the recent Ethnic Media Briefing on Florida’s Education Reforms, sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Miami and hosted by New America Media, at Freedom Hall in Miami.

“This is based on higher expectations for student achievement,” said Croft. “We found that when we have higher expectations for students, they rise to meet that challenge statewide. We expect this to continue.” 

When school grades were first implemented in 1999, there were “dramatic numbers” of D’s and F’s compared to A’s and B’s, Croft reported.

“They were almost equal,” he said. “Each time we have made a change in school grades to increase the standards to make it more rigorous or expand it to include more children … schools adjust, students adjust, and achievement increases. The numbers of A and B schools then increase and the (numbers of) D and F schools drop back down.”

The purpose of the assessment is to raise student achievement and success, provide more opportunities to students and measure whether students are mastering standards, explained Jane Fletcher, FDOE’s director of accountability and policy research.

The state board has set additional standards for writing, Fletcher said. “The writing standard is a little different. It is not a standard for the individual student but a standard for schools’ grades. It does not affect any student as far as the state requirements,” she said.

The expectations regarding the correct use of standard English conventions and quality of details on the writing test has been raised, said Juan C. Copa, FDOE’s director of research and analysis in education performance. In the past, both elements were scored with leniency.

One of the criticisms of the FCAT system is that it is forcing teachers to teach students how to be successful at test taking, Dannine McMillan of Liberty City said. “They are learning how to take a test, but what are the kids learning, and are they retaining it?”

If a child has not learned the standards, no amount of test taking or test prep is going to allow him to be successful on the FCAT, Fletcher responded.

“If (students) have mastered the standards for their grade level then they can do well. So I think it does measure whether the teacher has, in that classroom, conveyed successfully to the students the standards set by the state board.”

Fletcher continued: “When you think about how the test is designed, if (teachers) are teaching the standards, then they are in effect teaching (students) to test. But what we want them to do is teach the standards. If it’s done correctly, if the teachers teach the standards the way they are supposed to, then they will have the material to be successful on the tests.”

Asked about students who struggle to take the FCAT in English, Fletcher responded that there are elements of the school grades model that are designed to focus specifically on the students performing at the lowest levels of proficiency: the level 1 and level 2 students.

“One is providing schools an incentive for moving those students forward, helping them grasp the standards, helping them achieve higher scores. Even if they can’t move from level 1 to level 2, if they could move forward in level 1 at a fairly good rate, incentives can be given,” said Fletcher.

“This year, one of the changes in the school grading system is to provide even more of an incentive. That’s been an issue that’s being worked on,” she said.

“This type of discussion is appropriate for what our organization is doing,” said Willard T. Fair, league president and CEO.

“We believe that in order for us to save the children in Liberty City we need to engage and excite the parents, provide them with important information allowing them to make choices.”

Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net

Photo: Williard T. Fair