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Posted at 11:02 AM ET, 07/15/2010

Florida's FCAT scandal -- the next chapter

By Valerie Strauss

Let’s go to Florida for the latest entry in the category of “you can’t make up this stuff.” Here's the latest twist in the scandal over the state's 2010 standardized test scores.

When school district superintendents complained to state officials that there were anomalies in the scores of the 2010 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which had been implemented by NCS Pearson, the Florida Education Department said it had faith in the results but would get outside reviews anyway.

So who is doing the reviews?

One of the two outside groups is the Virginia-based Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO, which, it turns out, is a subcontractor on NCS Pearson’s $254 million contract with Florida to administer the FCAT.

HumRRO doesn’t see a problem.

"We don’t see it as a conflict of interest," Suzanne Tsacoumis, vice president for educational assessment, was quoted as saying by the St. Petersburg Times. "I can guarantee you we would only say the truth."

And state officials said they expect the company to report directly to the Education Department and carry out the review in an independent manner.

But some of the school superintendents who had complained about the scores are worried: "We absolutely are concerned about that," Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was quoted as saying by the Times. "Our whole purpose in asking for a third-party review is that it’s not someone who has an allegiance to anybody."

Early in the week, she and leaders from a handful of other big school districts in Florida, including Miami-Dade and Broward, asked Education Commissioner Eric Smith to get an independent review of the results of the 2010 FCAT.

After their formal complaint, other school districts started complaining, too, and now the Miami Herald reports that nearly half of the state’s districts have expressed concerns, many of them about declining learning gains that appear to be statistically unlikely.

NCS Pearson was already in trouble with Florida for a long delay in results that prompted the state to fine the company at least $3 million.

HumRRO is being asked to study the learning gains made by the lowest 25 percent of students, focusing on scores from the reading and math exams given to elementary-school students between 2008 and 2010.

And the Florida Education Department is contracting with the nonprofit National Center for the Improvement of the Educational Assessment to look at the design, scale and scoring of the reading and math elementary school-level exams from 2007 through 2010.

Why does this matter? Florida school districts use the FCAT scores for just about everything, including grading schools, placing teachers and principals, program placement and more. Planning for next year is already delayed, but the bigger problem is that somehow these scores have become imbued with an importance they don't deserve.

Even if it turns out that the 2010 FCAT tests were scored properly, the results shouldn't be used for any high-stakes decision, because no single test ever should be. This scandal only underlies how perverted our education accountability systems have become.

So why is it that all we hear today are attacks on teachers? Where are all the critics who are quick to scapegoat teachers but won't look at our phony accountability schemes?



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By Valerie Strauss  | July 15, 2010; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  FCAT, eric smith, florida comprehensive assessment test, florida education department, ncs pearson, pearson and fcats, problems with fcats, standardized tests  
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Thank you for keeping your eye on the craziness that is the FCAT this year in Florida. I still don't have the individual scores for my 8th grader. My friends teaching high school just found out what classes they will be teaching in the fall, because they had to wait to find out which kids were taking intensive math and reading based on FCAT scores. Realize that in some counties like Brevard, school starts August 9th.
Another piece of nuttiness affecting schools here this year is the class size amendment. On the surface it sounds great, except that there is NO flexibility built into it. This means that if a 4th grader moves in later in the year, and every 4th grade class in the school they are zoned for is already at 22 students, they will likely be bussed, alone, to a different school rather than have one class with 23 students. The schools HAVE to do this, or the county risks losing millions of dollars. Does that make any sense to you? Me neither.

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | July 15, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

The FCAT is such a waste of time for students and teachers. My kids get taught to the FCAT all year and once they take it school is done.. the teachers check out. I don't blame them.. they are required to teach to it all year. It is all administration cares about. I don't have scores for my kids yet from it... If my kids scores are lower I'll know there is a problem sine they are in all advanced courses with straight A's.... I know they aced the test since it is pretty easy and they always score very high.

Posted by: tbastian | July 15, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Educational testing is big business in Florida rooted deeply in nepotism. FCAT testing has been corrupt since its conception. I have never in my life seen such a group of politicians do more damage in the name of bettering education.
I teach and I vote???? Well, there's one to vote for except Charlie Crist. I used to think that it was just the right wing that were the attackers, but not so much now. At least you know where they are coming from, unlike Obama and Duncan who blindsided us. There's so much that could be done to better education but testing keeps us backpedaling. Thank you Valerie for your tireless efforts to help us gauge this battle. You are an inspiration and I read you every day.

Posted by: ananna | July 15, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

Lee County School District, a few counties south of me, just decided to throw out the bloody test scores. Do they really need to be paying this Mark Rolewski bloke $80,000 of taxpayer money to look at data? There is a budget crisis after all, right?

If that sounds unbelievable, check out this link, pretty concise I would say:

Time to stop messing about and do something about this high stakes testing rubbish.

Posted by: nededwards | July 16, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Time to put up or shut up, Valerie.

You are concerned about phony accountability schemes?

If so, could you please point me to the article that you wrote about the abuse and overuse of the VGLA.

Many Virginia students are not taking the standardized SOLs in Virginia schools. In some schools (even in Fairfax County), 50% of students are taking the VGLA.

Of course the VGLA is an easy pass-with nearly 99% pass rates. The results, since school districts combine SOL and VGLA scores together, are a miraculous improvement in pass rates. In some schools pass rates have gone from 60% to 90% in just 3 years.

The result? A white-washing of real performance in our schools. We have poisoned the well water and now we have no idea how our students are really doing. Schools that would never make AYP are getting by because of their overuse of the VGLA.

You spend a disproportionate amount of your energy and time on standardized test bashing. How about you speak up for Virginia's students since it is happening in your own back yard.

Redirect some of your outrage away from Pearson to all of the dishonest and unethical administrators and DOE officials in Va who have conned the public into thinking that our kids are doing great.

It took VA delegates to shut the party down otherwise this test data manipulation would have gone on forever.

Posted by: takebackourschools | July 16, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Thank you washington post, for writing about the turmoil with the FCAT in Florida. Now we all know about the disaster in Florida with the FCAT and about SB6 ( merit pay) pay teachers based on student's perfomance which Governor Charlie Christ vetoed, but now next year is going to be SB2, legistalors in Tallahassee continue making law to raise student's performance based on teachers, and pay teachers based on students results of what, of this testing companies, who we paid (florida) 245 million dollars from taxpayer money, to create this caos. Who is responsible for those millions of dollars wasted, for the brain damage caused to parents and students, for the low morale of the teachers, whose salary are way below national average and the cost of living is very high. We need to stop this massive testing, we need to stop the No child Left Behind law, we need to stop the competion among districts for the money from Race to the Top, those school district who are selling the dignity of the teaching profession and the dignity of the teachers, the dignity of the children to have a good education because few dollars, is like buying a child with a candy.
Parents, teachers and community in the USA, we need to getinvolve in the education of our children, this virus is going around nationwide, we need to stop legislators making politics with your child, and with education, we need to stop school districts using the children as money makers, so they can get more federal money and state money, we need to stop the legislators to make laws to damage education just to get federal money such as race to the top.Let's get together, spread the word about what is going on, lets show legislators that we also vote and our vote counts.

Posted by: siritilent | July 16, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

It's so simple. It's about Bush family and friends business interests. And those noisy stupid women, aka teachers, won't shut up and do what they're told! Too bad they can't be burned at the stake anymore.

Posted by: aed3 | July 16, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

One question: What would happen if all the parents who object to the standardized testing program kept their children home from school on that day? Or instructed them to put their names on the test and turn it in blank? The state couldn't penalize a school based on test scores from a handful of students, could it?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 16, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Let me give everyone a summary of what is going on here-because you are never going to get accurate information from Ms Strauss.

Some school administrators in Florida are unhappy with test scores from the FCAT and are somehow convinced it has to do with the test or the scoring-because all their teachers are highly competent and it couldn't possibly be a problem within the schools.

They are focusing on only certain scores of the lower grades. Why, you ask? Because those scores went down from the prior year. Reading pass rates for 3rd,4th and 5th graders went down by about 2 percentage points. However, scores for 6th-10th graders went up-by the same percentage- by the way. But they have no gripes with the testing integrity where the scores went up. The largest percentage improvement came from 10th grade math (a 4% increase) and 5th grade science (a 3% point increase). A far higher variance than what they are complaining about.

In summary, these administrators are perfectly ok with big jumps in scores, but refuse to believe that scores could ever go down.

Give me a break.

Posted by: takebackourschools | July 16, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse


There should be a grassroots "Keep Your Kids Home on Test Day" movement. If only a fraction of families did this, the test results would be so skewed they would be useless. Maybe all that money spent on testing and test practice materials would be spent on libraries, computers, building repairs, more help for kids who need it, and smaller class sizes.

Posted by: aed3 | July 16, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - right on point. Floridians are fed up with the FCAT and the class time it consumes. In Miami, we have representatives running on a platform of abolishing the FCAT all together – I’m seeing signs bearing the campaign slogan “Teach Not Test.”

Nice to see the FCAT held to scrutiny on a national level, so keep it up.

Julia Wakefield
Schwartz Media Strategies

Posted by: JuliaWakefield | July 19, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

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