Testing in Florida: An Overview

A GreatSchools guide to standardized tests

By GreatSchools Staff

Although test results are only one measure of student achievement, they have become increasingly important in assessing student learning. In 2009-2010 Florida used the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) to track how well students are performing in core academic areas. Students are tested in grades 3 through 10 in reading and math; in grades 4, 8 and 10 in writing; and in grades 5, 8 and 11 in science. High school students must pass the grade 10 FCAT in order to graduate. The FCAT is standards-based, which means it measures specific skills defined for each grade by the state of Florida.

Based on the FCAT scores, schools receive grades ranging from A to F under the Florida School Grades program.

Although test results can be an indicator of what's happening in the classroom, they don't tell you everything about the quality of a school. Always look at more than one measure when judging school performance and visit in person before making any final determination.

The information provided on GreatSchools profiles is for the 2009-2010 school year.

Tests in Florida

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT, pronounced "ef-cat") is a test given annually to all students in grades 3 through 11. The test is given to students in grades 3 through 10 in reading and math, and students in grades 5, 8 and 11 take the FCAT science test. A writing test is given to students in grades 4, 8 and 10. The FCAT is a criterion-referenced test (CRT) based on the Sunshine State Standards (SSS), which measures how well students are learning specific skills defined by the state. Through 2007-2008, the FCAT included a norm-referenced test (NRT), which measured how well students in Florida performed compared to their peers nationwide; however the FCAT NRT was discontinued in 2008-2009.

SSS: Sunshine State Standards

The Sunshine State Standards are Florida's state learning standards, which set expectations for student achievement. They are divided into eight subject areas: the arts, foreign languages, health, physical education, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. Each of these standards is divided into grade clusters (pre K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12), giving school districts some flexibility in designing curriculum. As Florida strives for more accountability, the Sunshine State Standards for the subject areas of language arts, mathematics, science and social studies have been further refined into specific grade-level expectations. Part of the FCAT measures achievement of the standards in language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

When is the FCAT given?

The FCAT is given during February and March. It is given early so that scores can be returned before the end of the school year.

What types of questions are on the FCAT?

The FCAT includes multiple-choice, gridded-response (fill in the blanks) and performance tasks (such as essays). The multiple-choice and gridded-response questions are machine scored. Each performance-task test is scored by two trained readers.

You can see some of the 2009 tests at the Florida Department of Education's Assessment and School Performance page.

How are the tests scored?

FCAT results report the level of proficiency a student demonstrates in each of the subject areas tested, with level 1 being the lowest and level 5 the highest. Florida considers scores of level 3 and higher to be on or above grade level. The goal is for all students to score at or above level 3.

FCAT Writing reports proficiency on a scale of 1 to 6, with level 3.5 and higher considered to be meeting standards. A multiple choice portion of the test was eliminated in 2008-2009.

How are FCAT results reported?

There are several types of scores for the FCAT. For reading, math, and science, mean scores are reported on a scale of 100 to 500, with 500 being the highest score. Grade-level/subject-level scores are given in terms of five achievement levels, with 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. The writing portion of the test is scored on a scale of 1 to 6. Scores are sent to students, schools and school districts, and are posted on the Florida Department of Education's Web site.

Which results are included on GreatSchools profiles?

GreatSchools shows the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level (level 3 or higher) on the FCAT reading, math, and science tests. FCAT writing results, displayed separately, show the percentage of students scoring at or above level 3.5.

How does the FCAT affect promotion?

There are no passing scores set for grades 4 through 9. Students in grade 3 who score at level 1 (out of 5) on the FCAT reading test will not be promoted to the next grade unless there is other evidence that proves these students can read on grade level. Students who are retained will be given intensive instruction in reading to help them meet the standards.

Each local school board is required to have a pupil progression plan which sets guidelines for promotion from grade to grade. The plan must include clearly defined proficiency levels in reading, writing, math and science and must consider the FCAT scores in determining whether or not a student should be promoted.

Does Florida have a high school exit exam?

All students must earn a passing score of 300 on the grade 10 FCAT in reading and math in order to graduate from high school. Students who fail the grade 10 FCAT have many opportunities to retake the test.

Florida had planned to require students in the class of 2010 and beyond to pass the grade 10 writing test in order to graduate, but this requirement was postponed indefinitely in April 2008.

Are some students given special consideration?

Special accommodations for learning-disabled students and limited English proficient students are available, but all students must take the grade 10 FCAT in order to receive a high school diploma.

Why do the tests matter?

FCAT scores are important for schools because they help determine whether a school will receive financial rewards or penalties from the state. Florida gives each school a letter grade (A-F) based on: overall performance of the school's students on the FCAT, the percentage of eligible students who took the test, and whether or not students are making adequate progress in reading and math.

It is important to pay attention to your child's FCAT scores because all high school students must pass the grade 10 FCAT in reading and math to graduate. Students who do not pass the reading and math portions of the test in grade 10 have many opportunities to retake the test. All grade 3 students who score at level 1 in reading on the FCAT are retained, unless there is other evidence to prove they can read at grade level.

If the school's overall scores are low, ask what steps the school is taking to raise achievement levels for all students, and what you as a parent can do to help. If your child is in a failing school, ask what your options are for transferring and obtaining supplemental educational services through Florida's A+ Plan for Education.

Florida School Grades

The A+ Plan for Education is Florida's blueprint for improving schools and providing accountability. Schools that do well receive financial awards, and schools that need improvement receive financial assistance. The A+ Plan also includes provisions for eliminating social promotion and raising standards for teacher certification.

Florida School Grades show how well students are performing against the state standards. Schools get grades based on:

Here are some key points of the A+ Plan for Education:

1. All public schools get letter grades on an A to F scale. Schools receive grades based on a complicated point system. A school's grade makes it clear to the school, the parents and the general public where the school stands. School scores are sent home to the parents, published on "report cards" on the Florida Department of Education Web site and publicized through the media.

Schools that receive a D or F grade are eligible for financial assistance from their district and the state, as well as additional staff to help with school improvement, while schools that receive an A or show significant improvement may qualify for monetary rewards known as School Recognition Funds.

At least 95% of students (excluding severely emotionally disturbed, autistic and limited English proficient students) must take the test for the school to receive a grade of A. For all other grades, at least 90% of students must be tested, or the final grade may be lowered by one letter grade. If a school that otherwise would be graded B or C does not make adequate progress for two years in a row, its final grade is reduced by one letter grade, unless the school develops a School Improvement Plan. If a school that otherwise would be graded A does not make adequate progress in the current year, its final grade is reduced to B.

For a complete explanation of the state's school grading system, go to the Florida Department of Education's Florida School Grades page.

2. The A+ Plan ends social promotion. The state has provided funding to schools for remedial efforts such as after-school tutoring, mentoring and small class sizes. Each district is required to create a pupil progression plan which spells out grade-level standards and requirements for passing from one grade level to another. Different districts have different promotion requirements, but all districts are required to specify proficiency levels in reading, writing, math and science, and to consider FCAT scores as one gauge of student achievement.

Students who score at level 1 (out of 5) in reading on the FCAT in grade 3 are supposed to be retained for another year; school districts can make exceptions. Students must receive a grade of 300 or above (out of 500) on the grade 10 FCAT in order to graduate.

3. The A+ Plan raises standards for teachers. The A+ Plan raises the bar for teachers by increasing initial certification requirements, recertification requirements and admission standards for entry into colleges of education. Colleges of education are also rated on their performance, and their ratings are published in their college catalogs.

Why is the School Grade important?

School Grades provide a summary of student performance and progress. Each school can use its detailed grade report to determine specific strengths and weaknesses. In addition, Florida's Department of Education provides support to low-performing schools and monetary rewards to high-performing schools. Lastly, schools receiving a grade of "D" or "F" cannot make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and may face additional consequences under federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) guidelines.

What are my options if my child is in a failing school?

If your child's school receives a grade of F for two of four consecutive years, then you are entitled to pursue several options. Your child can:

Parents can choose to keep their children at the failing school and work with the Assistance Plus staff to improve the educational environment. The Assistance Plus program provides failing schools with additional resources. Schools receive additional funding as well as additional staff (school improvement facilitators, reading coaches and technical assistants).

In 2008 there were 1019 "A" elementary schools compared to 21 "F" schools. The picture for high schools was less rosy, with 120 "A" schools compared to 16 in the "F" category.

What if my learning disabled student is not making progress?

If you are dissatisfied with the academic progress your learning disabled student is making on his IEP, you have the option to transfer him to another school, public or private. You can apply for a John M. McKay Scholarship, which is equal to the amount per student the state would have funded the student's previous school or the cost of the private school, whichever is less. Your child must have attended a Florida public school for at least one year before deciding to transfer. If you find you are unhappy with the private school in which your child is enrolled, you can transfer him to another private school or to a public school.

Search for Florida Schools.