Florida’s Grammar Controversy

(Guest Post by Lindsey Burke)

In the most recent administration of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) – the state’s criterion-referenced assessment of student achievement – Florida students were asked to pay a little more attention to punctuation, grammar, and spelling in order to get a passing grade on the writing assessment. FCAT cut scores were to reflect that, with proficiency status awarded to those students who could meet the requirements of the new grammar-sensitive assessment.

This rather trivial change has set off a firestorm in the Sunshine State, which just released this year’s FCAT scores, graded under the more rigorous standards.

In 2011, a whopping 81 percent of Florida’s fourth graders scored a 4 or better on the writing portion of the FCAT. Just 27 percent of the youngsters scored proficient under the more rigorous standards this year. Eighth and tenth graders saw similar declines.

The dramatic drop prodded the state board of education to revise the cut scores downward, temporarily dropping the passing mark from 4 to 3 (out of a possible 6 points).

Over the past decade, Florida has made dramatic gains in academic achievement. Florida skyrocketed from 5th worst in reading performance on the NAEP in 1998 to 8th best by 2007, significantly increased the number of students who take and pass AP exams, and began to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students (Black and Hispanic students in Florida had twice the reading gains of the national average from 1998 to 2009). But evidence suggests that progress the Sunshine State had begun to taper out, with students plateauing on recent assessments.

Keen to ensure student achievement continued apace, Florida proactively raised the rigor of the FCAT – something they’ve done every other year or so since Gov. Jeb Bush’s A-PLUS plan was implemented. According to Commissioner Gerard Robinson, the board of education “asked scorers to grade essays more strictly, with an eye to punctuation, grammar and the quality of word choice and relevance.”

As Florida reels under the draconian requirements of – gasp! – punctuation awareness in a writing assessment, there’s a lesson to be learned for federal and state policymakers eager to adopt national standards and tests.

The backlash against Florida’s efforts to improve the rigor of the FCAT begs the question: what is the correct level of rigor for the 46 states that have adopted Common Core national standards that will not elicit similar reactions? We have yet to learn where the Common Core central planners will set their cut scores, or how they plan to go about setting passing marks on which both Alabama and Massachusetts will agree.

It is a cautionary tale for national standards proponents. Much of Florida’s success over the past decade can be attributed to the state continuously improving its standards and tests. With rigid national standards in place, that flexibility would be lost. And if mistakes are made in the standards, they’re here to stay.

Florida will likely succeed, as it has over the past few years, at striking the right balance on the FCAT. But being able to define what Florida students should know and be able to do, and crafting standards and tests to reflect that, will be lost if the state goes through with Common Core adoption.

Florida strengthened state tests to make sure kids could spell, apply punctuation, and grasp other grammar concepts. These are nuances the state will no longer be able to enjoy come 2014, when national standards and tests are to be fully implemented. The Sunshine State wants to continue its march to the top of the NAEP, and has been working to strengthen standards to achieve that goal. But that ability will soon be lost, which is the ultimate lesson that should be gleaned from the FCAT controversy.

(edited to fix a typo)


10 Responses to Florida’s Grammar Controversy

  1. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:


    Why is it new to the FCAT writing test that students should include “punctuation, grammar and the quality of word choice and relevance” when they write?

    And what about FCAT reading results? Statewide 10th grade FCAT reading tests (across the total student population tested) have hovered at about 38% from 2001 through 2011.

    We should be concerned that if students cannot read for comprehension, that they will also be incompetent in writing, lifelong learning, and civic participation.

    Common Core Standards will not solve the problem.

  2. niki hayes says:

    The statement in this article that struck a chord with me was the following: “The backlash against Florida’s efforts to improve the rigor of the FCAT begs the question: what is the correct level of rigor for the 46 states that have adopted Common Core national standards that will not elicit similar reactions? We have yet to learn where the Common Core central planners will set their cut scores, or how they plan to go about setting passing marks on which both Alabama and Massachusetts will agree.”

    You can have rigorous testing, but if the cut scores are low, that doesn’t show us rigorous learning has taken place. This will be the major battle of the war among the states with Common Core, unless the Feds make the decision without worrying about states’ concerns. I wonder if folks will finally understand what federal “control” in education really means?

  3. I still don’t get all the references to Common Core tests and cut points.

    Common core is primarily formative assessment. The project or activity or portfolio are the measurements for the most part.

    I raised this issue in a meeting with a Georgia Deputy Super. How can you measure individual student achievement if the assessment is a group project?

    Answer: We always said these were performance assessments. I knew the behavior or the artifact was presumed to represent the assessment. That was a nice confirmation that the common sense that performance means “high” or “solid” or “factual” or even tangentially related to knowledge within a student’s own mind is wrong.

    On a side note on reading in Florida, I was looking at the new crosswalks from the University of South Florida school of ED. Firts and foremost teachers are to teach whole words.

    That would create long term literacy problems. As Flesch noted back in the 50s.

  4. […] be able to enjoy come 2014, when national standards and tests are to be fully implemented.”(more)    Comments (0) Return to main news […]

  5. Ann In L.A. says:

    It begs another question: if the Common Core reduces or leaves unchanged student achievement, and with the political and financial price paid to implement the Core, will there be be tampering with the NAEP to show non-existent gains? When all the eggs are in the federal basket, the feds have the power to scramble them any way they want.

    • Ann-

      I am going to write a post in a week or so explaining how the entire concept of what constitutes student achievement is modified under common core. It is generally coming in under growth language in the state waiver applications under NCLB. The growth though is not academic as traditionally understood.

      Several states already have legislation changing the measurement to Growth, notably Nevada. Which made Las Vegas and Reno good places to pilot the most radical forms of outcomes-based education. Using computers for the vo-tech element this time.

      Also on NAEP, Bev Eakman’s Cloning of the American Mind from the mid-1990s does yeoman’s work describing what NAEP is really about and what Ralph Tyler was really trying to do with it. It remains pertinent to what the formative assessments are really doing under Common Core.

  6. jenni says:

    As usual, Lindsey has done a great job hitting the nail on the head of what it will mean for states to adopt Common Core, but I want to make a point seemingly overlooked.

    A professor I know in the journalism department at the University of Oklahoma recently received a letter from a prominent New York advertising firm praising how well prepared OU journalism students were in a number of cutting edge areas. She went on to admit, however, that she couldn’t really hire any journalism grads because so few of them understood syntax, spelling and grammar well enough to write copy for her agency.

    Student of History is correct in his assessment of whole word language. It has RUINED students for years now and is at the very heart of poor English performance in scores of states but it comes on the back of the fact that children in public school (including mine) are not made to correct spelling errors, learn basic sentence structure, spelling rules, or grammar. This, part and parcel of the new, “Can’t make it too hard on the kids so our test scores stay up, but we’ll penalize you (the school/teacher) if your students can’t do it” mentality we have in public education today.

    This helps no child learn the English language. English teachers do that. If parents were allowed to re-engage the system, maybe school boards would be well informed enough to choose curricula reinstituting diagramming of sentences and drill the and kill of punctuation and spelling rules (HORRORS)!

    All my children will be schooled at home next year and my days as a public ed watchdog may end as I may only have time to save the ones I can save from a system I believe more and more every day to be “unfixable”.

    • Dear Lindsey,

      I would like to point out a crucial “observation” that was made by an IB parent in the following article:


      “Sandy Stenoff said she thinks the FCAT is a “broken tool.” She said her son failed the FCAT after being enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program.”

      Florida is right up there with California in having the most public schools which have been infected with IB. Instead of saying, “Hey, maybe my child wasn’t taught what they need to know in order to be deemed proficient in grammar and spelling by the State of Florida” ….. they blame the measuring tool! It’s like botching the ingredients for a cake and blaming the measuring cup because it collapses in the oven!


    • Doctor MTZ says:

      I encourage you to Review the literature, over 50 years worth, on the actual impact drill and kill grammar exercises, like sentence diagramming, have on improving students’ writing skills. The effect is nil. And, in fact, it hinders students’ understanding of the writing process. I encourage all teachers to use a myriad of valid and reliable writing instructional strategies, but please let us not return to useless, time consuming, mind numbing drill and kill exercises.

      • Greg Forster says:

        You have 50 years of evidence on the impact of Florida’s FCAT? Wow! Where’d you get the time machine?

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