The results of the most recent set of Florida's FCAT results show significant gains in writing scores throughout the state, according to a partial release of data by Florida's Department of Education. Among the counties where the scores showed marked improvement were Miami-Dade with 11% and Broward county with 10%.
Part of the gain could be explained by new testing procedures that included giving students an additional 15 minutes to write their essays. According to The Miami Herald, the additional time – which increased the writing period from 45 minutes to 60 – probably allowed students to organize their thoughts better and as a result raised their scores.
The difficulty level of the essay question was also adjusted this year. Students were asked to write about their experience winning something special – as opposed to something like imagining what would happen on an imaginary camel ride.
Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said local school superintendents praised this year's FCAT writing question as more "accessible" for students, though Bennett insisted other nuts-and-bolts teaching strategies — such as better teacher training and more classroom attention to proper writing — also contributed to the testing gains.
"I do believe that what we saw is better writing," Bennett said.
Although the writing results show great promise, reading outcomes continue to lag. According to the released scores, fewer than 60% of Florida's third-graders tested at satisfactory levels in reading in the latest exam. The improvement year-to-year was only 1% statewide – from 56% to 57%.
Broward and Miami-Dade both performed below average on reading, with 54% and 53% respectively.
Although reading scores are down significantly from 72% only a few years ago, the changes are mostly the result of changes to the exams and not from declining student performance.
Florida's lower passage rates are largely the result of revised exams and a tougher scoring system. State education officials have said these changes are necessary to make sure students leave high school prepared for college or the workforce.
Year after year, state education leaders have tweaked the formulas and methodology by which students and schools are rated. Florida's Board of Education faced particular criticism last year over a series of changes to the FCAT writing exam, which led student performance to plummet from a roughly 80 percent passage rate to only about a third of students passing. The state responded by passing an emergency rule that lowered the required passing score, which led to better student passage rates.