(Photo: Stock.xchng.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The state’s first round of standardized test scores are in, and the answer is: Consternation!

As most Florida parents probably know by now, only 27 percent of fourth-graders passed this year’s writing test, which entailed composing a short essay based on a prompt. This represented a plunge of deep-sea proportions. Last year, 81 percent of the state’s fourth-graders passed the test.

Schools screamed that they were being tarred unfairly as losers — and with so much riding on standardized test results these days, no one can afford that label. Third-graders must pass FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) in reading to move to the next grade. High school students can’t get a diploma without passing the FCAT.

The state Board of Education met in emergency session on Tuesday. And with the pressure on, with hundreds of outraged spectators on hand, they solved the problem by simple math. They redefined failure. Instead of a 4 being the minimum passing grade on the 1-6 scale, they deemed 3 the passing score.

Presto. Eighty-one percent of fourth-graders now passed the test.

(Similar drops hit eighth and 10th graders. And there were similar instant improvements, once the passing score was shifted from 4 to 3.)

Did the kids get suddenly dumber year on year? Of course not. No more than they got immediately smarter upon the board’s vote that made a lower score good enough for passing.

Everyone seems placated for the moment. Because the consequences of widespread failures are too severe. “Students, teachers, principals, administrators, superintendents, even school board members, all know they’re judged by the outcomes of tests,” as Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm put it.

The most immediate worry, to judge by teachers’ and administrators’ quotes in news stories, is that more horrible test scores are on their way. That’s because the the state had ordered more rigorous requirements in a number of subjects, but did it “at warp speed without the appropriate time to train educators on the new requirements, and ignoring each student’s year to year improvement,” the Herald’s editorial board said.

The Fort Myers News-Press totaled up all the test-taking going on in public schools, Grimm noted, and found that eighth-graders will be taking 27 standardized tests this year. Twenty-four of those tests will take two class periods to complete. It will take up 51 class periods, or 34 hours, the News-Press wrote.

“The time left to actually educate students, to teach them to reason and comprehend, is less and less each year,” said teacher Sandra Andrews of Bonita Springs Middle School.

That is the nub of it, and that is the harder question to deal with. This year’s writing scores stank largely because, for the first time, students were graded on punctuation and spelling, the News-Press said. That seems only proper. It’s how students’ writing would be judged by a future college admissions officer or by an employer.

OK, then. Crisis averted. The state has decreed that 80-some percent of Florida students can now write at an acceptable level.But to believe that is to believe in fantasy. As we’ve shown before, the United States ranks pitifully low among the other nations on student performance.

Florida has taken the general approach of spending as little on public education while testing as much as possible and ratcheting up the pressure to perform.

How’s that working out for us so far?