FT. LAUDERDALE (CBS4) – Since its inception, Florida schools and their students have had a lot riding on the scores of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT).

On Monday, the state’s Board of Education released rather shocking news. A revamped grading system, designed to raise the bar of achievement, drastically dropped the number of student who passed the writing portion of the test. Parents were stunned.

“I was really surprised when I heard it this morning,” said parent Carolyn Huerkamp.

“Last year when it took it, it wasn’t really that hard,” chimed in Huerkamp’s daughter Clara who is now in the 5th grade.

“I was shocked because last year I felt that the 4th grade writing was excellent,” said parent Shelly Biagi.  “I thought my daughter learned so much, she did really well on the writing portion of the FCAT.” Last year 81 percent of 4th graders got a 4.0 or above on a 5 point scale; this year just 27 percent hit at least a 4.0 which was considered the passing point under the new grading system.  Passing scores for 8th graders fell from 82 percent to 33 percent.  In 10th grade, 80 percent passed the test last year, but only 38 percent scored a 4 or above this year.

School superintendents across the state were quick to point out that it was the change in the test and the grading scale, and not the kids, which cause the dramatic decrease.

“There hasn’t been a huge drop in student performance, so let’s be clear about that,” said Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie. “What has changed is how the test results are calibrated.”

Runcie pointed out the change in the grading standard happened very quickly and schools were left with little time for preparation.

“No one should argue about the fact that we need to set high standards and expectations for our students and ourselves,” said Runcie, “But how we continue to do that and how we get there, we have to work through.”

Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho agreed that too much changed without giving time schools to prepare.

“I believe the state’s accountability system has changed dramatically without notice in the past year, 18 distinct and dramatic changes over the past year,” said Carvalho.

The changes left teachers frustrated.   Jennifer Smith teaches French at Hialeah Senior High School.

“What’s changed are the rules of the game in the middle of the game without really notifying anyone.”

She said the test is failing the students, not the other way around.

“We’re being told what to teach and how to teach it and when to teach it all in the interest of bringing up test scores, and I think it’s not doing any good to the students  and I think we’re raising a generation of kids who don’t really like learning and see school as a chore,” she said.

She said teachers spend so much time preparing their kids for the FCATs, they’re missing out on other educational opportunities.

“They’ve had to eliminate novels and projects things that are good for a children’s education and also interesting which I think is what children retain in the end,” she explained. “They’ve had to either cut it back drastically or eliminate it because they needed more time for test prep.”

On Tuesday, more than 500 parents, educators and reporters joined the Board of Education on a conference call to discuss what could be done. Many questioned whether the tests should be changed and how the lower passing average will affect school grades.  They also questioned that by changing the methodology, it would be confusing to the teachers and the students.

“The state may have to recalibrate how it actually looks at school grades given the fact that we’ve gone to a new test,” said Runcie.

Concerned parents also said they felt the schools were teaching more toward passing the test rather than teaching the students.

In the end, the board lowered the passing score to a 3.0 instead of a 4.0. The emergency rule will be in effect for 90 days. The board will address permanent rules within that time.  State education workers will now go back and re-calculate the numbers of students who passed.

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