Florida residents have been fuming over the latest fiasco in standardized testing— the plummeting scores on the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, which had been changed to reflect higher standards. Only 27 percent of the state’s fourth-graders passed the test this year, compared to 81 percent who were deemed proficient last year. The state’s response? It lowered the score for passing the test.
That action, taken by the state board of education in an emergency session, may have been necessary for officials to work out bugs in scoring and for teachers to adjust their instruction to the new demands. The FCAT is, after all, a high-stakes exam that is used not just to assess students but to grade schools and teachers. But over the long term, relaxing cut scores on tests of basic skills (in this case grammar and punctuation) serves only to perpetuate the sorts of lies that we have been telling our children for years— that they are proficient in essential subjects like math and English when in fact they are not. A better reaction would be to keep the proficiency bar high and to give teachers what they need to help students clear it.
The fact is, states and districts are going to have to get used to these rude surprises. In just two years, the 46 states that have signed on to the Common Core State Standards will be using one of two new assessments, each of which promises to be a whole lot tougher than the ones most states are using now. They will be tests not of basic skills, but of deeper learning, assessments that seek proof of critical thinking and analytical reasoning with more detailed problems and written responses. Much like the rigorous exams now used for the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, they will be tests worth teaching to.
American students already show huge gaps between their performance on state tests and the more challenging National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the definition of proficiency on those state tests varies wildly. According to a 2010 study by the Fordham Institute, cut scores range from the 6th percentile for fourth grade math in Colorado to the 77th percentile for fourth grade math in Massachusetts. Wisconsin sets its eighth-grade reading passing level at the 14th percentile while South Carolina sets its at the 71st.
It is virtually certain that when the Common Core tests become the measure of proficiency across the land, scores in some states will plunge. Florida standards are already well-aligned with the Common Core; imagine what scores will look like in states where they are not. But there is no reason for states to be blindsided by Common Core test results the way the way Florida was by its own exams. Districts need to start preparing their citizens for these report cards right now. That means working much harder to raise public awareness of the Common Core, which is remarkably low given the initiative’s import. The public is understandably fed up with testing. But once parents, voters, and the business community understand the goals of the new testing program (and appreciate that the Common Core is a state-led, bipartisan undertaking, not a federal mandate) they will be more likely to give it the support it needs to succeed.
Florida made “an avoidable mistake,” former education commissioner John Winn told the Tampa Bay Times. It made more changes to the FCAT in the past year than in the past decade. Evidently it did so too hastily, without sufficient support and communication. But as Winn observes, that is not an argument not to do standards reform. It is an argument to do it well.