The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or the FCAT (Pronounced eff-cat), is the standardized test used in the primary and secondary public schools of Florida. First administered statewide in 1998, it replaced the State Student Assessment Test (SSAT) and the High School Competency Test (HSCT). The FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) is administered annually, in late February and early to mid-March as well as April, to all public school students in grades three through eleven. Students in grades three through ten are required to take the reading and math portion every year. Private and parochial school students are not required to take the FCAT; most of these schools administer another standardized test instead, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, which is exactly the same as the FCAT NRT, formerly taken by public school students. FCAT Science is administered annually to public school students in the fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades. In the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, public school students take the FCAT Writes exam (formerly called "Florida Writes!" and "FCAT Writing+"); unlike the other tests, the FCAT Writes exam is administered in early February to allow adequate time for scoring before the end of the school year. Students' results from the FCAT are compiled to generate a grade for each public school. Under this plan, public schools receive a grade from A to F, depending on student performance and the degree to which the bottom 25% of the school has improved compared to its past performances. The higher a public school scores, the more funding it receives.
Promotion and graduation
When originally introduced, students in fourth grade were required to pass the reading portion of the test in order to be promoted to the fifth grade. After passage of the No Child Left Behind Act by the United States Congress in 2001, the mandatory passage was moved from fourth grade down to third grade, so as to align Florida with federal statutory requirements. In addition to the third grade requirement, public school students in Florida must also pass the tenth grade FCAT, not only in reading, but also in mathematics, in order to be eligible to receive a high school diploma. Grade 3 and graduation are the only two instances in which federal or state statute require passage of the FCAT; it is given at the other grades for the intention of providing diagnostic information, both on students and schools. However, many counties in the state have adopted other promotional requirements tied to the FCAT, but these are at the discretion of each individual county school board.
Options after failing the FCAT
A student failing the tenth grade test—that is, the test required for graduation—is allowed approximately five additional opportunities to pass it prior to graduation. Originally, students were given four more chances to pass the test after failing it in 10th grade—in October and March of both their junior and senior years in high school. However, starting in 2006, students were provided an additional test administration during the summer between school years. Students, however, may not retake the Grade 10 FCAT during the summer between their sophomore and junior year because additional time is needed for remediation. If students do not pass the FCAT prior to their scheduled graduation, they may continue to retake it until they pass it to earn a standard high school diploma.
If a student completes the minimum number of credits for high school graduation, but does not pass the FCAT, he or she may still be allowed to graduate with a certificate of completion. Students may substitute the appropriate subject-area score from either the ACT or SAT. A score of 15 on either the Reading or Mathematics sections of the ACT or a 280 on the Reading and a 370 on the Mathematics sections of the SAT can be used to waive the FCAT requirement after the student has failed the 10th grade test at least three times. Students may earn the concordant passing score prior to taking the FCAT Retake Reading or Mathematics examination three times, but they cannot substitute it in lieu of the passing FCAT score until they have taken the FCAT Retake Reading or Mathematics examination three times. In any case, students will receive a Certificate of Completion that allows for admittance in any state community college for which they have met all graduation requirements apart from passing the FCAT. Students may also transfer their credits to a private or out-of-state school. Several high schools in North and South Carolina regularly market in Florida on radio stations annually during the spring and early summer, advertising their 'service' that is available to 'graduating' Florida high school students who for whatever reason failed to pass the FCAT and were unable to receive a high school diploma, despite having excellent grade point averages and having completed all course requirements for a high school diploma.
Exceptional education students
Exceptional education (ESE) students are also able to waive the FCAT requirement to get a Standard High School Diploma. Those ESE students wishing to obtain a regular high school diploma must score a passing grade on the FCAT or receive a waiver for the FCAT. In order to get the waiver, ESE students must prove that they have taken several steps to try to pass the FCAT and must also show that they have improved every time they have taken the test. The FCAT is either machine-scored or hand-scored, depending on the section. Multiple-choice and gridded-response questions are machine-scored. Performance tasks, such as short-response, extended-response, essay items, are hand-scored. Like several other standardized tests, the raw score does not directly reflect the final score; some questions are considered to be of a higher difficulty level than others and, therefore, carry more scoring weight. This type of scoring is called Item Response Theory (IRT).
Though the system is designed to reward public schools for excellence in teaching, many educators and community members have criticized the program, claiming that the program takes funding from schools which need it most. It has also been criticized by many students and teachers because the schools put too much emphasis on the FCAT and not enough on preparing students for the real world. The parochial and private schools of excellence, recognized under federal guidelines separately from state guidelines, and proclaimed as superior by the Federal Government, in fact receive no public funds and are exempt from requiring their students to take the FCAT. The FCAT tests have also come under fire from education groups and parents for encouraging teachers to teach students how to pass a test, rather than to teach students the fundamental material in the core subjects such as English. Another point of criticism on the FCAT is that all students of the same grade take the same test, despite the fact that different students are enrolled in different courses. To compensate for this, in many schools, teachers are directed to cover FCAT skills, regardless of what subject they are supposed to be covering.
Retired teacher and Lakeland, FL political activist Carol Castagnero has been a harsh critic of the FCAT and ran for several offices to highlight her opposition to the exam. Castagnero called the test "unconstitutional" during her 2006 campaign for Governor and stated during her 2008 Congressional campaign that "children are being terrorized with a test called FCAT." Unlike many other standardized tests, the FCAT has fill-in-the-blank questions, as well as long answer. Many problems on the Math section ask the student to show their work; they are graded for the process as well as the result. The students are asked on these problems to write as if they were teaching someone how to complete the problem. Teachers must spend time with the students so they can put the appropriate amount of information for each question type legibly, and parts of each of the tests must be graded by hand. The math section has relatively few 'logic' problems and more 'process' problems that ask for multiple numeric computation steps. A 4-function calculator is included in the test materials.
Long-form questions are also found in the reading section. For the reading section, the students are often asked to infer things that were only implied by the reading selection, creating long-form questions that may have multiple correct answers. Teachers sometimes have access to a given years' FCAT test well before the intended test date. There are concerns that some teachers teach the exact problems on the test in the time leading up to the test, but no one specifically has been accused. Because the FCAT is a high-stakes test, the incentive for teachers to do this is high, and the incentives for principals to hide this behavior is even higher.
FCAT Explorer is an internet-based tool designed to help Florida students in grades 3 to 11 pass the FCAT by focusing on mastery of the Sunshine State Standards through several interactive programs. Each student is given a unique username and password to access these programs, and schools in Florida often set aside time during the day to work specifically on FCAT Explorer.