The State Board of Education has set an emergency meeting for Tuesday to consider lowering the passing grade on the writing portion of Florida's standardized test, after preliminary results indicated only about a third of students would pass this year's tougher exam.
That compares with a passing rate of 80 percent or more last year and provides another opening to critics of high-stakes testing.
"They've asked students to do more, but that's pretty dramatic," said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. "We need to examine what led to this, not just paper over the problem."
The statewide teachers union has opposed Florida's use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers and grade schools.
Results on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, are the major factor for determining A-B-C-D-F grades the state uses to reward top schools and sanction those at the bottom of the spectrum.
This is the first year students and schools will be assessed on the basis of tougher tests and scoring systems. That's expected to result in more students failing the FCAT and lower school grades.
The board, though, agreed at its regular meeting last week not to let any school drop more than one letter grade this year to help them adjust to the rigorous new standards.
This year's FCAT writing exam was made more difficult by increasing expectations for the correct use of punctuation, capitalization, spelling and sentence structure, as well as the quality of details used to explain, clarify or define. The board also increased the passing grade from 3.5 to four on scale of zero to six.
The preliminary results show only 27 percent of fourth-graders received a passing score compared with 81 percent last year.
For eighth-graders it was 33 percent — down from 82 percent in 2011. For 10th-graders it was 38 percent — a drop from 80 percent last year.
The board will consider an emergency rule proposed by Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson to drop the passing score to 3.5 at its conference call meeting.
That's expected to increase the number of students passing the exam to 48 percent for fourth grade, 52 percent for eighth grade and 60 percent for 10th grade, still well below last year's results.
"This incident again demonstrates that Florida school grades reflect profoundly political decisions, not objective measures of teaching and learning," national high-stakes testing critic Bob Schaeffer wrote in an email. "How can a measure which fluctuates from 81 percent to 27 percent 'proficient' in just one year even meet the laugh test?"
Schaeffer is spokesman for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Jamaica Plain, Mass.
The Department of Education's notice for the proposed emergency rule says when the board approved the scoring changes it "did not have, and could not have had, impact data" that would show how those revisions would affect the results. It adds that the preliminary results now indicate "the heightened scoring rules may have unforeseen adverse impacts on school grades."
School grades factor into such decisions as contracting services for or even closing low-performing schools or making faculty and administrative changes. Students in failing schools also can transfer to other public schools.
Officials in some school districts have been preparing parents for bad FCAT news by sending letters home with students explaining that the tests have become more difficult to pass.
Others are pushing back.
School boards in Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties have passed a resolution against what they say is an over-reliance on high-stakes testing. Board members say the exams reduce time devoted to teaching and put unhealthy stress on students.
The resolution asks the state to develop a new assessment system that relies less on standardized testing and urges the federal government to reduce testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Florida is among nearly a dozen states that have received a waiver from No Child Left Behind. State education officials, though, say the waiver still requires high testing standards.
The Florida resolution is similar to one that 438 Texas school boards have signed. FairTest and other groups initiated the resolutions.
"The test rules everything," said FEA's Pudlow. "It's been in place 13-14 years now, and look at the results."
A Department of Education spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.