Florida's students are getting ready to write the final chapter in a 17-year saga known as the FCAT.

Fourth, eighth and 10th graders will take the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test starting Tuesday. Not only is this the last year of the FCAT – a new test will replace it next year – it may also be the last time students take a separate writing standardized test. Reading and writing will be combined next year.

The controversial high-stakes FCAT, first administered in 1997, serves as the framework for a state accountability plan that grades schools from A to F. Those grades can affect property values, student enrollment and determine whether a school is shut down or receives extra funding.

Here is what the changes will mean:


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Q: If FCAT is being phased out, will third graders still need to pass the test to be promoted? Will 10th graders still need to pass it to graduate?

A: Yes, third graders must achieve a passing reading score this year to move on to fourth grade, or demonstrate proficiency through another test or portfolio. This year's 10th graders still must pass the reading FCAT to receive a high school diploma. FCAT retakes will be given for several years. Third and 10th graders in future years are expected to face similar consequences with the new test.

Q: What new test will replace the FCAT?

A: The state plans to announce that some time in March. The original plan was for students to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, based on a set of national benchmarks known as Common Core Standards. In September, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the state to withdraw from that test and offer a different one. The Common Core Standards will remain mostly intact under the new name, Florida Standards.

Q: Will the school grading system change as FCAT is being phased out?

A: Yes, after complaints that the current system is confusing and not scientifically valid, the state plans to overhaul it.

This year, no major changes are being proposed. The state will use the same formula as last year, and schools will face the same consequences.

The new proposed grading system replaces a complicated point system with one that would give schools a percentage grade, between 0 and 100 percent. For elementary and middle schools, the grades would be based on three factors: overall achievement, improvement and improvement of the lowest performing students. Other factors would be included in high school grades, including graduation rates, SAT and ACT scores and student performance in Advanced Placement classes.

Q: Will schools face the same penalties under the new grading system.

A: Yes, but not until 2016. The 2014-15 year will be considered a "baseline" year. While schools will get letter grades, they won't face any consequences, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said. Schools that received Ds or Fs would not face being closed or reorganized.

Many fear grades will drop dramatically under the accountability plan, and teachers groups and others have requested delaying grades by one year, a request Stewart has rejected.

"I believe it's very important to keep our eye on the goal. I think providing the information without consequences is the right balance," she said.

Q: This year, have schools been focusing on preparing students for the FCAT or the new standards?

A: School leaders say both. Students are still being taught how to do the writing exercises required by FCAT. Students who will never take the FCAT, including those in kindergarten through second grade, are being taught Common Core standards.

But educators say they're also teaching Common Core standards to students who will take the FCAT, believing it will teach them to do well in whatever tests they give.

"We're moving away from drill and kill and giving back the same knowledge the teacher gives to students," said Richard Hughes, principal at Hagen Road Elementary, west of Boynton Beach. "We're doing more analytical and higher order thinking."

stravis@tribune.com or 561-243-6637 or 954-425-1421