The FCAT is no more; a replacement is in the works
Published: Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 8:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 8:45 p.m.
After 16 years as the state-mandated standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test ended its final round of statewide testing Friday.
Plagued by criticism of its content and effectiveness over the years, the FCAT started its decline in 2010 when the state Legislature adopted the Common Core State Standards, selected to replace the state standards tested by FCAT.
A replacement for the test, to be developed by the American Institutes for Research, is in the works.
Here's a look back at the assessment known not-so-affectionately to teachers, parents and students over the last decade as, simply, "the test."
FCAT was the most recent chapter in Florida's statewide assessment program, established in 1972.
By the early '90s, state education officials were looking for a way to raise the bar on student achievement expectations and tailor learning to help graduates succeed in the workforce.
The state Board of Education adopted the recommendations of the Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability in June 1995, and the concept of the FCAT was born.
Soon after, a more rigorous set of state educational standards called the Sunshine State Standards were developed.
The FCAT was designed to test students' understanding of the state standards in the areas of reading, writing, mathematics and critical thinking.
The test was first administered to students in January 1998. Fourth-graders took a reading test, fifth-graders took math, and eighth- and 10th-graders did both.
The following year was when test scores began to count toward school grades.
Dunstan Wallace, 24, was in fourth grade in 1999 and took FCAT Reading at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School.
He said he doesn't remember much from back then, but an inconsequential detail stuck out to him.
On one of the tests, probably the reading portion, "the practice question was the same question every year," Wallace said.
There was a drawing of a ranch and a long dusty road cutting through a plain, with clouds gathering on the horizon.
The picture accompanied a short story with a question about dust gathering, Wallace said. "I remember it was the same little narrative every year."
The Sun was unable to obtain a copy of the illustration, but then again, the test has undergone multiple face-lifts and additions since 1999.
Wallace was also among the first classes to take the Florida Writes, which appeared in 2000 and was later dubbed FCAT Writing.
The writing test gave students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades just under an hour to explain, persuade or tell a narrative story, using a five-paragraph essay format.
In fourth grade, a student might be asked to tell a story about a special day he or she experienced; by 10th, the same student might be asked to explain how being famous could change the course of someone's life.
FCAT Science appeared in 2003 for grades 5, 8 and 10, changing to grades 5, 8 and 11 in 2005.
When the test was fully implemented, students in grades 3 to 11 sat for the FCAT in at least one subject each year.
Controversy over the test
In the late '90s and early 2000s, Wallace said, teachers implored their students to do their best on the test, and students took it seriously.
But by the time that first wave of FCAT-takers was in high school, times had changed, he said.
The test was far below the level at which Wallace and many of his friends at Buchholz High were learning. For high-achieving students, FCAT had become a boring chore.
On test days, Wallace said the mentality was, "OK, we're going to sit through this long test and when we're done you can goof off or read a book or whatever."
The test was updated to be more rigorous in 2012, when FCAT 2.0 emerged.
Over the years, stakes had gotten higher and higher.
Passing FCAT Reading became a requirement for third-graders to go on to fourth grade, and a graduation requirement for high schoolers.
Student performance on the test factored into school grades, which in turn dictated which schools received extra money from the state.
Only "A" schools get the bonus, a practice that critics said rewarded schools that didn't need the help while penalizing lower-performing schools.
Another common criticism was that FCAT's high-stakes nature contributed to "teaching to the test" and preventing teachers from getting to valuable subject matter that wasn't tested by the state assessment.
Student test scores also weigh heavily in teacher evaluations in Florida.
The problem with that, Alachua County Education Association President Karen McCann has said, is that the majority of teachers don't teach FCAT subjects.
That means everyone who doesn't, from media specialists to music and PE teachers to Advanced Placement chemistry teachers, are evaluated based on the scores of students they don't teach, or in subjects they don't teach.
In Alachua County, the formula resulted in an Irby Elementary School Teacher of the Year receiving an "unsatisfactory" rating on her evaluation.
Irby Elementary serves kindergarten through second grade only, so Irby teachers' evaluations were based on FCAT scores from the neighboring Alachua Elementary, serving grades three through five.
Although the same stories echoed across the state, DOE officials told Florida teachers to hang tight, that the model would improve after the first year.
"There is no state out there that launches a new state evaluation system and it's perfect the first time," Kathy Hebda, deputy chancellor for educator quality for the DOE, told The Sun in late 2012.
In fact, the department had to tweak the evaluation formula after enough complaints.
In 2013, 99.6 percent of Alachua County's teachers were rated "effective" or "highly effective."
Initially, Florida had looked to PARCC, a group of states developing an assessment for the Common Core, already adopted in 45 states.
Gov. Rick Scott called for Florida to pull out of PARCC in 2013, citing "government overreach" as well as a desire to have an assessment plan that would be unique to the state.
Florida formally backed out of PARCC in September, going ahead with something Scott called the "Florida Plan."
Subsequently, the DOE held public forums and took residents' comments about how the Common Core State Standards should be tweaked.
The few revisions, based on thousands of comments, transformed the benchmarks into the Florida Standards in February.
The following month, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced she'd selected the American Institutes for Research to develop a new test for the Florida Standards — the same organization that developed the controversial VAM scores that cause teacher evaluations to vary so wildly.
No date has been set to release the new test prep materials to Florida teachers, but with less than one year until the new test, teachers say they hope to see something by early summer.
What will the new test look like?
According to Stewart, in a March letter to parents, "The new assessment will include more than just multiple choice or simple fill-in-the-blank questions. Students will be asked to create graphs, interact with test content and write and respond in different ways than on traditional tests.
"This is the best choice for Florida students," she wrote.
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.