Low Test Scores Hold Back Thousands of Florida 12th-Graders

An estimated 10 percent of Florida’s high school seniors did not pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (search) and were kept from receiving diplomas last month, despite last-minute efforts by the state Legislature to ease testing requirements for would-be graduates.

State officials have not yet released the final numbers, but in April, they speculated that nearly 10 percent — or about 14,500 — of the state’s 12th-graders were to be denied diplomas for May graduations because they failed the FCATs. That number is higher than the approximately 13,000 who failed to pass the standardized test before graduation in 2003.

Officials said the uptick was primarily caused by higher thresholds for passing grades on the reading and math portions of the test. Others say an increase in Florida’s school population contributed to the higher number of non-graduating seniors.

But some education experts say the FCATs and other standardized tests are not effective indicators of students’ learning abilities and unfairly put minority students at a disadvantage. Of the 13,000 seniors who did not get diplomas last year, a majority were Hispanic and black.

"There is something wrong with the integrity of the FCAT," state Sen. Gary Siplin (search), D-Orlando, an early detractor of the FCAT requirement.

The FCATs are administered to Florida students in grades 3 through 10. By the time they are seniors, students get a total of six chances to pass the test, and have more opportunities starting in June if they miss graduation.

School officials say third- and fourth-graders are showing improved FCAT scores, and hope those results will bode well for graduating classes in the future. They say the FCAT requirement for graduation also helps students develop better study skills and motivates them to pass standardized tests.

But in an effort to address charges that the FCAT test is an unreasonable criterion for graduation, state lawmakers ruled in an 11th-hour vote last month to allow seniors to substitute FCAT results with passing scores on the SAT (search) and ACT tests, which are standardized college entrance exams. The Legislature made the same provision last year.

Lee Baldwin, director of accountability, research and assessment for the Orange County School District, said the option passed by the Legislature was "really designed for helping the unusual case of a student who didn’t pass the FCAT but did well on either the SAT or ACT get into college.

"It doesn’t help very many — it helps a few," Baldwin said of the law. He added that 1,572 12th-graders — about 16 percent of the graduating class in Orange County — did not get their diplomas on time this year because they failed the FCAT.

Baldwin said high school students who fail the FCAT usually have problems in the other areas required for graduation — grade point average and class credits. But Siplin said he is "morally opposed" to the test because the material is foreign to otherwise good students. He said college-bound students are "being held back" because of the requirements. He has so far been unsuccessful in getting a bill passed that would allow parents to examine the test, as well as their child’s answers.

Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Florida offices of the Manhattan Institute (search), said he has no reason to believe the stories that students with full scholarships to colleges are being denied diplomas because of their FCAT scores. He pointed to the institute’s own study of standardized testing and graduation rates, which found no connection between the two.

"They test a minimum set of skills that a high school graduate should possess," said Greene, who called the Florida FCATs "reasonably easy."

According to reports, 222 out of the 13,000 who failed the FCAT in 2003 were able to get their diplomas under the relaxed rules. The Department of Education said 58 percent of students who did not get their diplomas on time are continuing their education, mostly at technical schools.

Last year, protesters from minority communities threatened a commercial boycott in response to the usage of FCATs for graduation. Supporters of the requirement say test scores for Hispanic and black students have been on the rise two years running.

"When we ended social promotion and raised standards for our high school seniors last year, many were skeptical," said Gov. Jeb Bush (search) in an April speech when the 2004 FCAT scores were released.

"Today’s results show Florida is moving in the right direction, with more students reading on grade level and significant improvement and opportunities among those who have struggled the most," he added.

Alia Faraj, spokeswomen for the governor, told Foxnews.com, the state expects the students to rise to the challenge, and they believe they are seeing that already.

"We certainly expect to see rising achievement that further demonstrates that high standards are reaping results," she said.

Protests have not been called for this year, and Greene said he doesn't think the Legislature's decision to substitute test scores is any type of capitulation.

"Some tinkering is appropriate," he said. "You learn, especially in the policy world, that as you implement a law, you may find that this might not be the best test for everyone. You fix it."

Faraj said the governor believes in the FCAT requirement, but is willing to give students who have proven themselves in other tests options to graduate.

"It’s not about lowering standards in any way," she said. "It’s about giving seniors more options."