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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Jacksonville's FCAT woes are about to get a lot worse

This is the one part of the test that the Intervene Schools did well on.

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Leslie Postal

Yes, kids, spelling counts.

So does grammar, punctuation and the ability to make logical arguments backed up by relevant details.

Oh, and forget about phrases such as "a potpourri of iridescent colors." No one wants to read "pretentious language" in student essays.

The FCAT writing exam — the oldest and, by most measures, the easiest in Florida's testing arsenal — is to be graded on a tougher scale starting next year.

The move comes as Florida prepares for national academic standards, set to be in place in 2013, and new, beefed up standardized tests a year later. The idea is to pump up the requirements on FCAT writing, so Florida students are ready for the more demanding exams to come.

Central Florida educators expected the change and have been working to improve writing instruction to help students meet the challenge of a stricter grading system.

The essay section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is taken by students in grades 4, 8 and 10. They have 45 minutes to write an essay on an assigned topic.

Under the new grading system, there will be "increased attention to the correct use of standard English conventions," including spelling, grammar and punctuation, the Florida Department of Education stated in a recent memo to school districts.

"Scoring of this element in the past has been applied with leniency," wrote Deputy Commissioner Kris Ellington.

Students also will be expected to make logical arguments using relevant, specific details — not "contrived statistical claims or unsubstantiated generalities," Ellington wrote.

Finally, the department doesn't want to see evidence that students have memorized phrases to use on their FCAT essays.

"Rote memorization or overuse of compositional techniques, such as rhetorical questions, implausible statistics, or pretentious language is not the expectation for quality writing at any grade level," the memo stated.

The use of memorized phrases, or what the department calls "template writing," is one the state has been trying to stamp out for several years.

The practice, state officials have said, involves students at the same school using the same phrases in their essays, suggesting they've been "coached" to employ them. The phrases include over-the-top language such as "a potpourri of iridescent colors surrounded me," and similar, contrived story conventions such as writing, "POOF!" and then describing the character suddenly being in a land of dragons, pirates or fairies.

Ideally, the department wants students to write coherent, logical essays that show they have a "command of English language conventions."

They will be expected to spell commonly used words correctly but won't be harmed if they take a "compositional risk" and use, but misspell, a difficult word.

A fourth grader, for example, wouldn't be penalized for misspelling rhinoceros.

FCAT writing, then called FCAT Writes!, was first given in 1992 to fourth graders. The exam is graded on a six-point scale and this year the state wanted students to score a 4 or better. More than 79 percent did.

In Orange County, aware of the coming demands, schools have ramped up writing lessons by encouraging writing in all subjects, not just in language arts classes, said Diane Knight, senior administrator for curriculum services.

That means students write about what they observe in science lessons and write their analysis of documents they read in social studies.

At a principal meeting this summer, curriculum leaders even suggested schools put the question, "What is the writing experience that you are requiring students to do today?" in all teachers' lesson plan documents, said Linda Dove, director of curriculum services.

Educators are eager to see examples of student essays scored under the new system, said Anna-Marie Cote, deputy superintendent of Seminole County schools.

Later this month, the education department is to release those documents, showing what short of essays would earn what scores under the new requirements.

Though teachers teach writing — and spelling and grammar — in many classes, they may need to put additional emphasis on certain skills, Cote said.

"We'll have to work on it a little more," she added. or 407-420-5273.,0,966982.story

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