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Students, Schools Get New FCAT Challenges

Ohanian Comment: I wonder if educrats will ever have the guts to say they don't embrace high standards. I provide plenty of ammunition for making this case in One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards (Heinemann). Remember: The standards drive the tests.

Florida's high-stakes reading, writing and math tests return this week -- with higher-than-ever standards and stiffer penalties for schools whose students don't score well.

While local school officials say they embrace higher standards for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, they worry that a tougher FCAT could spell trouble -- especially at some high-poverty schools, where lower ratings could lead to a reduction in special programs intended to boost student achievement.

The first direct change for students will come Tuesday with the premiere of the multiple-choice test on the basic principles of writing. It's being added this year to the long-standing essay test as a prelude to a new graduation requirement that will kick in for the Class of 2010, this year's seventh-graders.

With so much at stake, schools across Volusia and Flagler counties have been preparing students for FCAT for months, with some like Sugar Mill Elementary in Port Orange giving it one last shot on Saturday.

The school sponsored a practice session for its fourth-graders with last-minute reminders on how to improve their writing. Children got a pizza lunch and free school supplies for attending.

"The main thing is just to make kids feel good about themselves" going into this week's tests, Sugar Mill Principal Rick Inge said.

John Penny, whose two boys attend Holly Hill Elementary, attended that school's FCAT program in November to pick up tips on how to help prepare his fourth-grader for the state test.

"The whole FCAT thing is a lot of pressure," Penny said. "On the whole, I'm in favor of tougher standards and raising our expectations, but I think it's unfortunate everything is focused on this one . . . test."

Officials at some other schools, like DeLand Middle, have done extra coaching this year on the importance of FCAT after learning some of their low-scoring students hadn't done their best in the past because they didn't think the test was important in middle school.

The toughest penalties for students come in third grade, where they're subject to being held back if they fail the FCAT reading test, and in high school, where passing math and reading scores are required for graduation.

The state Board of Education recently endorsed expanding the mandatory retention policy beyond third grade, but that would take lawmakers' approval.

While saying they favor higher standards, Volusia school officials have joined educators from several other counties in opposing the all-or-none nature of the federal rating system, which they say unfairly penalizes schools that are earning high marks from the state.

For example, a school can be awarded an A under Florida's rankings but still be deemed a failure under federal standards if it does not show "adequate progress" in any one of 45 categories.

They also oppose a federal rule requiring them to set aside 20 percent of their Title I budget for busing and private tutors for students attending the high-poverty schools that fail to make that progress in three consecutive years.

Volusia will have to set aside $2.5 million -- while Flagler diverts $250,000 -- from Title I budgets. Losing that money could have a "devastating impact" on students at those 49 schools, Volusia Deputy Superintendent Chris Colwell said.

"We are 100 percent opposed to the reduction of these programs," Colwell said.

"It's so sad because Title I is such a magnificent program for getting aid and assistance to these kids," said Peter Palmer, director of Flagler's Title I program that includes four schools. "They're tying our hands from doing some of the things we used to do."

Colwell is still hopeful educators will be able to persuade state and federal officials to make changes in that system before the school ratings based on the test are released in June.

Failing that, he said parents can expect to see a growing number of Florida schools labeled as failures and cutbacks in teachers and services at high-poverty schools.

Florida Comprehensive
Assessment Test
The writing section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test will be given in fourth, eighth and 10th grades across the state beginning Tuesday. FCAT reading, math and science tests will be given in third through 11th grades in Flagler County on Feb. 28-March 11. Volusia, which got state permission to delay its tests because of the 14 days lost to hurricanes last summer, will give those exams March 15-24.

They'll be the first crop of students who will have to pass the FCAT writing test in addition to the already required math and reading tests to earn a diploma.

The multiple-choice writing test is just practice this year. "They're testing the test," said Nicki Junkins, curriculum and program accountability director for Volusia County schools.

No scores from the multiple-choice writing test will be reported this year, but essay scores will remain an important part of judging each school's performance under Florida's A-plus accountability plan and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.


Addition of a multiple- choice test on the basic principles of writing. The passing score on the essay will rise from 3 to 3.5 this year on a 6-point scale, plus:

Switching the high school FCAT science test from 10th to 11th grade. It's also given in fifth and eighth grades.

Inclusion of FCAT scores for nearly all students with disabilities and those just learning English in the A-F grade calculation for each Florida school.

Diverting $2.5 million in Volusia and $250,000 in Flagler to busing and private tutors for children from high-poverty schools that fail to make "adequate progress" for the third consecutive year based on FCAT scores.

WHAT'S AT STAKE:Florida grades its public schools on an A-through-F scale based on FCAT scores. Schools earning A's or improving by at least one letter grade get cash rewards. Students at schools that fail in two years out of four are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools. Florida also uses FCAT scores to determine if public schools have made "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Scores are sorted by up to 45 categories, including children's race, family income, disabilities and English proficiency. Schools failing to make "adequate progress" in even one category fail overall, kicking in penalties on how they spend federal education money. The standards will increase significantly this year, with 48 percent of the children in each category required to pass reading, up from 31 percent. The passing rate for math will climb from 38 percent to 53 percent.


— Linda Trimble
Daytona Beach News-Journal


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