FCAT Writing Scores: Hand-Wringing Over a Lame Duck Test (from 6-23-12)

In a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon (they were pretty nearly all great), Calvin asks his dad where the wind comes from. His dad replies, “It comes from the trees sneezing.”

Calvin replies, “Really?”

His dad responds, “No, but the truth is more complicated.”

Flash forward to Calvin and Hobbes walking through a windy landscape, where Calvin says, “The trees are sure sneezing today.”

I’m sure everyone in Florida has heard about last month’s flap about the FCAT Writing Scores. Here’s the typical take on it: Most kids used to pass the FCAT Writing, but they decided to score it harder, so most kids wound up failing, so they lowered the passing score from a 4 back down to a 3, which represents a lowering of standards, and those lazy teachers should be ashamed of themselves for wanting lower standards.

Okay, that’s the “tree-sneezes” explanation. The truth is more complicated, so people prefer to hear that the trees are sneezing. In an effort to set the record straight, with a bit of humor to make the medicine go down, I did a series of Mr. Fitz comic strips in the Daytona Beach News-Journal to illustrate several points about the scores and the flap. When I do a series like this, it is really an essay done as sequential art: each idea, instead of getting a paragraph, gets a comic strip.

In an effort to further clarify my thoughts, I’m going to annotate the series here to maybe clarify a few things for people. I suppose it’s a bit like a director’s commentary on a film. It’s an experiment with the format; I’m looking to see if it works.

The series opened with this strip:

I began the series with this strip, because it is very difficult to emphasize how much the up and down, mercurial nature of the scores and scoring of these standardized tests harms morale among teachers and students. The passing score used to be a 3, then it became a 3.5 (one scorer gives the paper a 3, the other a 4), then it became a 4 to raise standards, and because they went to only 1 scorer instead of 2 to save money, so 3.5 no longer existed as a score. When they went back to two scorers this year, they kept the cut score at 4 instead of 3.5– at least initially. The system seems designed to keep teachers and students uncertain, unsure of their footing, and never quite feeling like they’re doing enough. 

On the other hand, it seems that while Ms. Albright, the principal, has bought into the whole crisis of scoring, Mr. Fitz is aware that panic is exactly what the state wants. Teachers who don’t take the Test as seriously as the state would like them to are a problem for the state. They want us to care mostly about the test, to believe that test prep is our main job. But if you know, as Mr. Fitz does, that your main job is not to teach to a test but to teach real writing, then you are somewhat immune from the states pressure. And the state wants teachers and students to feel the pressure, because they think pressure, stress, and coercion are the best motivators of learning and student “achievement.” I have wondered why it was necessary to go public with the low scores before changing the cut score. When the state initially saw the results, they could have changed the cut scores before making any announcement to the public, and then explained why the change was made in a way that diffused any public concerns. But they didn’t. They created a panic about the low scores that made schools and teachers look bad, then stepped in as the saviors by lowering the cut score. That was a PR move.

I find it hard to believe that the state was as blindsided as they claimed to be when they first released the scores to the press. Mr. Fitz’s point here is a real one: if you make the former “average” score that most students get (last year’s 4)  below the cut score range by making it a “3,” it seems pretty obvious that most students are going to fail the test, unless there is some massive change in instruction, expectation, or test conditions. Molly, in the following strip, asks what changes did take place.

But did they change the conditions? No. All they changed was how the rubric was used. I was going to touch on this issue of the rubric in the strip, but I decided it would be getting a little two technical for my general newspaper audience. Nonetheless, the question remains, if rubrics are useful because of their objectivity and their clear guidelines for students and scorers, then how can you take the same exact rubric and get a very different scoring result? For nearly 20 years, teachers have been using a 6 point rubric to score writing. They have gotten really good at scoring using that rubric, for good or ill. But now, this far into the program, the state decides that without changing a single phrase, word, or punctuation mark of the rubric, you must use it differently. It gives lie to the whole concept of rubrics as objective.

When I told a retired educator who wanted to hear about the whole mess about the rubrics remaining the same but being used differently, he asked, “How does that work?” He was baffled.

And of course there’s the fact, noted in the last frame, that no additional time was given to meet the new demands. Students still had only 45 minutes to read a prompt, plan how to respond to it, write it using good word choices, vivid details, fluent sentences, a sense of personal voice, sound reasoning, an attention getting grabber, and a thought provoking conclusion. And now, without the aid of a thesaurus, spell check or dictionary, and with no additional time allowed, they were required to make sure that their essays had “higher quality” details and were proofread well. It all seems so arbitrary. I mean, how high is it acceptable to raise the bar? Will there be lamentations over the failures of teachers when students fail to type 3 pages in a single sitting, a requirement in the new Common Core State Standards?

And, of course, what support did the state offer us? Not much. they simply changed the way the rubric was used, threw sample essay PDF files at on the email and left us to figure it all out. Thanks. That was really useful.

The above strip is a condensed version of the speech I actually gave my 8th graders. My point here is that the very best things we as teachers and our students as writers aren’t necessarily seen by the public. I wonder if we should somehow try to remedy that, but there are only so many venues in the local papers for our students’ writing… Maybe we should all work on that as teachers.

Again, Mr. Fitz refuses to be overjoyed, because test scores are not his primary focus. However, they do have their uses, ironically.

FCAT Writing time is the only time I really crunch numbers, because those numbers help me justify what I do: get better scores by not focusing on the test. 

Of course, all the drama and hand-wringing over the FCAT Writing is silly for another reason: FCAT Writing is lame duck. After two more years, it goes bye-bye forever. No more prompts about riding camels, no more making up facts and statistics. This year’s incoming Florida 6th graders will instead take the Common Core Standards-based PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Career and College Readiness) exams, which will be computer based, computer scored, reading and writing combination tests at every grade level, not just 8th. What will they look like? We don’t completely know yet, but that’s a subject for another day.

Post Script: A friend messaged me because she’d caught a couple of errors in this post. I corrected them, but noted how hard it is to eradicate every mistake when you are editing your own work because your brain corrects things for you. That’s why editors exist. Another good point to remember when thinking about writing and proofreading a complete essay in 45 minutes…