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FCAT Scoring Draws Heat

Ohanian Comment: This scoring system is not, of course, unique to Florida, but it is something that should outrage the public more than the infamous Florida chads. A machine figures out if one student's right answer was a "lucky guess" and worthy of less credit than another students right answer on the same question.

Speaking as a former 3rd grade teacher: My whole class did a lot better on the "harder" problem solving questions in math than on the "easier" computation. I ascribed this to the fact that we spent almost all our time in class on problem solving and my students did not fill out workbook skill sheets on computation. This probably meant they were slower at computation than the kids who did spend a lot of time on those skill sheets.

FCAT Scoring Draws Heat The way points are assigned to questions poses a hurdle for students

By Julia Crouse
The Ledger

LAKELAND -- Lake Gibson High School senior Brittany Radney has been trying to jump through her last graduation hoop -- the FCAT -- since 10th grade.

Although she said she's more prepared for her fifth time around, Radney only has one more chance to pass if she wants to graduate with her classmates.

"She's a good student, made good grades and gone through 12 years of school," said Radney's mother, Sharon Miller. "As far as I'm concerned, the kids don't have a chance."

One of Radney's biggest complaints is that she can correctly answer the same number of questions as her neighbor yet one may pass and one may fail.

The FCAT, or the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, tests students' comprehension of curriculum benchmarks. High school students must pass the test in order to graduate with a standard diploma.

Cornelia Orr, director of the Assessment and School Performance Office, said most of the FCAT's criticism comes from those who are uninformed about the scoring and testing process.

This year, 2,500 Polk high school students -- 126 sophomores, 1,488 juniors and 886 seniors -- will take the completely multiple-choice retake test, cutting out the original's writing portion. This means the retake is graded solely by a machine without human interaction.

To many, it sounds like the questions are weighted -- that is, two students who answer the same number of questions correctly could have different final scores.

But FCAT officials with the Florida Department of Education say it's more complicated than that.

"The scoring is the most fair and widely accepted method among . . . professionals in the field because it incorporates so much more about the students than just a simple number (of correct answers)," Orr said.

The machine gives one raw point for each questions answered correctly, then a computer program takes that data and recalculates it into a numerical score based on the type of questions correctly answered. That number, called a scale score, determines whether a student passes the test. This year students must score an achievement level of three out of five, or 300 points out of 500, to pass the test.

The program factors in three things about every question for each student: the question's difficulty; how many students usually try to guess its answer; and the distribution of students who know the skill involved and those who guess right or wrong.

For example, if a student named John and his classmate Mary answered 20 questions correctly, their scale scores could be different. John correctly answered questions deemed easy, so his final score is lower than Mary's, who correctly answered more questions considered difficult.

Even if John answered a few harder questions correctly, the computer would deem these answers as lucky guesses based on his pattern of answers. Lucky guesses carry a lesser value than those calculated correctly.

Lake Gibson's Testing Coordinator Debbie Coffman still questions whether the scoring system is fair because students aren't told at the beginning of the test how it is scored.

"We finally got, in education, the writing down pat and students were doing better," she said. "Then they changed the formula for grading it."

Orr said one reason students aren't told ahead of time about the scoring is because every question should be given a student's best shot.

Another reason is that the complicated computer scoring process might be too confusing in an already intense situation, the FCAT official said.

Marking questions as hard or easy might disrupt a student's pattern and make it difficult to measure the achievement level, possibly causing students to ignore easier questions.

But Coffman said if students understood more about the process, they could tailor their answering pattern for success.

"What can I give (students) as an education? How can I help this kid improve?" Coffman said. "This kid just didn't pick the right 35 questions to answer. That's frustrating to me as an administrator."

The DOE is in the early stages of creating a comprehensive booklet for teachers to explain pattern scoring, Orr said.

Coffman said students would have a better chance preparing to retake the test if they knew what they got wrong.

The DOE doesn't release the FCAT answers or test questions. Instead it sends students an FCAT student score report indicating how many questions missed and the general skill section that needs work.

Releasing the test would more than double its creation cost of about $2.7 million, Orr said.

A diagnostic answer sheet without the test would be practically useless because the answers would be out of context, she said. And because the test is fluid from year to year, it focuses on different skills levels and varies its questions.

But Coffman said without an answer sheet teachers have a hard time helping students improve because they have to start over with every skill.

Teachers don't know whether students need to concentrate on upper-level learning or the basics, she said.

"How can I help kids with what I'm getting back from the test? I can't," Coffman said. "That's why I'm so frustrated and disillusioned with the test. It's not that the kids aren't trying."

Radney has gotten intensive remedial training for her last FCAT attempt. She said the extra classes should help her pass the test with flying colors.

"It's my last time before graduation and at the same time, I'm more confident," she said.

After graduation Radney said she plans to enroll in Polk Community College's nursing program, but she can't until she passes and receives a full diploma.

If she doesn't pass, Radney might have one more chance.

Last year, seniors who failed the test were offered a deal by the state to exchange FCAT scores for an acceptable SAT or ACT score.

This year, the Florida Senate is considering a bill that would allow all students to use alternate scores, such as the ACT or SAT. The bill would also allow out-of-state transfer students to use alternative assessment for graduation.

If the bill becomes law, Orr said, she worries that students might blow off the test and just take the SAT later, lowering schools' assessment grades and jeopardizing their funding.

Radney and her mother said they pray Radney will get the same chance.

"I just feel like, you know, I went through 12 years of school for nothing," Radney said.

Julia Crouse can be reached at julia.crouse@theledger.com

— Julia Crouse
Lakeland Ledger




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