A year after the state had to scramble to save face when Florida’s writing FCAT scores plummeted, this year’s results show Palm Beach County students scoring considerably better this time around.
Overall, 67 percent of county fourth-graders received a satisfactory score on this year’s writing test, compared with only 57 percent statewide, according to results posted Friday. The county similarly beat the state average when it came to scores for eighth- and 10th-graders, the other two groups who take the writing test.
Last year, only 55 percent of county fourth-graders scored a 3.5 out of 6 — this year’s bar for satisfactory performance when it comes to school grades.
Palm Beach County was one of 25 school districts in the state to have a 10-percentage-point or greater improvement in the number of fourth-grade students earning a 3.5 or higher on the writing FCAT.
“Our students, parents and teachers have worked very hard this year and I’m pleased to see more students achieving at higher levels,” state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said in a statement. “Our teachers do a fantastic job every day to prepare students for college and careers.”
Scores on the writing FCAT do not affect individual students, but are used in calculating school grades.
Because the state raised the bar from 3 to 3.5 out of 6 this year, schools’ scores may suffer despite the fact that students performed better on this year’s test.
“We can’t lose sight of the good job our students and teachers did,” district Chief Academic Officer Cheryl Alligood said Friday. She stressed that she wants teachers, parents and others to understand that school grades may drop despite improved student performance.
“This is the reality of the school grading system we’ve been given by the state,” she said.
Watching the state set the bar at 3.5 instead of 3 this year made the school district recognize “the focus all schools had to put on writing,” Alligood said.
Teachers across the state “worked very hard to make sure students became better writers,” state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said in a conference call Friday with reporters. He added that, anecdotally, state education officials saw a reduction in “text message”-style writing that has become so pervasive among students.
Grassy Waters Elementary School in West Palm Beach saw their writing scores shoot up this year by 48 percentage points — from 27 percent scoring a 3.5 or higher last year to 75 percent reaching that threshold this year.
“We were ecstatic,” said Assistant Principal Jennifer Galindo, adding that there were “no secrets” to the school’s scores — just hard work, professional development for teachers and students writing their hearts out.
“We are very proud of our teachers and students,” she said.
Of course, comparing how well this year’s students did to last year’s test takers is difficult, since the state gave students an extra 15 minutes to write their essays this year.
Indeed, for years, the writing FCAT scores have defied comparison due to a slew of changes to the test and the scoring. Those continued tweaks have made it difficult to judge a school’s growth over time, and has led some in recent years to questions the reliability of the state’s accountability system.
For instance, in 2010, the state went from two people scoring each writing exam to one, dropping the bar on the exam from a 3.5 to 3.
In 2011, it boosted its satisfactory level on the test to a 4.
Last year, more stringent scoring practices and the adding back of a second scorer on the writing FCAT caused scores to nosedive, forcing the state to lower the bar from a 4 to a 3 to mitigate that plummet from overly affecting school grades.
Of course, in a couple years, the writing FCAT will be phased out completely as the state moves to start testing under the new Common Core State Standards.
“It’s a higher level, more rigorous form of writing,” Alligood said about what is expected on the new Common Core-based exams. She said the district is trying to prepare people now for the change.
“FCAT Writes is a style of writing we’ve gotten very used to,” she said.