2010 Science FCAT and beyond

The annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results are finally released. These are exams that students across the state in specific grade levels must take in core subjects. These scores can influence students’ promotion to the next grade, and dictate what the student can or cannot take the next school year, such as remedial courses instead of electives. The scores also play a significant role in each school’s letter grades they receive from the state every year. Chronically low performing schools can face ugly sanctions.

Of special interest to us at Florida Citizens for Science are, of course, the science FCAT results. The science FCAT is given to students in grades 5, 8 and 11 every year. It’s different than the other core subjects’ tests in that whereas it counts towards schools’ grades, it doesn’t have any effect on the students’ futures. A failing grade on the science FCAT typically means nothing to the student, but still has value to the school administration. Another odd aspect of the science test is that its content can cover a wide range of science topics, some of which students may have taken years ago and have forgotten by the time the test rolls around. How much from a 9th grade Earth/space course will a student remember for an 11th grade exam? A new law passed during the state legislature’s 2010 session will change some of these quirks, but I’ll get to that later. Right now let’s take a look at the latest scores.

FCAT results are broken down into five levels. Those students whose scores place them in levels one or two haven’t fully learned the required material and struggled with even the basic material. Level three is middle of the road with students having general success with the material, but not doing well on the more challenging questions. Levels four and five are where kids who really know their stuff fall.

The first result we’ll look at in this year’s scores is the percentage of students who got a Level three or above. This year is little different than years past, unfortunately. All three grade levels – 5, 8 and 11 – couldn’t muster even half of the students to at least a Level three. Grade 5 is the most promising, though, with 49 percent making it. That is up from 46 percent last year. That’s the lone bright spot in all of the scores, but even that still points to a sad state of affairs. A little more than half of 5th graders aren’t up to par on their science knowledge.

The 8th graders are improving, but at a slower annual pace than the 5th graders. They’re at 43 percent achieving Level three or higher, up from 41 percent the previous year. And then we get to the 11th graders, where the ugliest bad news resides. Only 38 percent were at Level three or above. That percentage has been essentially stagnant for the past four years! The figures each year are: 2007 – 37 percent; 2008 – 38 percent; 2009 – 37 percent. Keep in mind that this means a whopping 62 percent are not even at a basic level of science understanding!

It’s tough to say what’s happening to science in high school. Keep in mind the factors I outlined above – the scores don’t count against the students, and the students are tested on a wide range of material from the past few years. Tracking high school students’ overall science knowledge will be moot, though, in the next few years. There are changes in how they are going to be assessed in the works.

First of all, 5th and 8th graders will still be faced with annual science FCATs. A new version of the test, called FCAT 2.0 will be phased in with some field testing in 2011 and then full implementation in 2012. The new FCAT will be aligned to the new state science standards that were adopted in 2008.

There is only one more science FCAT in store for 11th graders. After 2011 the high school science FCAT will be eliminated, replaced with end of course exams. Or rather, one end of course exam in Biology. In accordance with a new law, high school students in future years will be required to attain three science credits to graduate: Biology I, chemistry or physics, and “an equally rigorous course”. However, Biology is the only class that will require an end of course exam for credit. There is the possibility that the other science courses will have mandatory end of course exams for credit, but don’t hold your breath. Also, as an explainer here: currently, some subjects may have end of course exams administered by the teacher, and the score for that figures into the final grade. But the end of course exam for biology will eventually be a test the students must pass to get credit for the class, regardless of the students’ other grades in that class.

Here’s the tentative plan for the various requirements to be phased in:
2010 – 2011 school year: last year of the 11th grade science FCAT.
2011 – 2012 school year: Students will start taking Biology end of course exams, but they will only count for 30% of the class grade.
2012 – 2013 school year: The Biology end of course exam must be passed to earn credit.
2013 – 2014 school year: Students entering high school need to plan on taking Biology, Chemistry or Physics, and an equally rigorous course in the coming years.
2014 -2015 school year: To get a standard diploma, students must have earned a Biology credit that included the end of course exam. The 30% percent of the class grade end of course exam will count for this year’s graduates.
2015 -2016 school year: To get a standard diploma, students must have earned a Biology credit that included the must-pass end of course exam.
2016 – 2017 school year: To get a standard diploma, students must have earned credits in Biology, Chemistry or Physics, and an equally rigorous course.

Keep in mind this schedule is tentative! It will be interesting to see how this all works out in the coming years.

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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3 Responses to 2010 Science FCAT and beyond

  1. Jonathan Smith says:

    Thanks Brandon for your very comprehensive report. In noticed in my county (Polk) which has one of the better science programs in the state,FCAT score in science were up. However, when you consider the 11th grade results,69% of the students tested BELOW grade level.Not much to brag about !!!

  2. Sherman Dorn says:

    The percentages above an arbitrary threshold (the cut score for Level 3) is a weaker indicator of trends than median and mean scale scores — not that they’re anything to write home about, either, but “proficiency” is a very fuzzy concept when put into operation.

  3. Bob Calder says:

    Our rush to judgement may be premature. Looking at the populations of test takers in selective schools, it looks to me as if this year’s test was not a great deal better than last in terms of its ability to assess knowledge.

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