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Few Florida Schools Excel

Ohanian Comment: You don't need to read past the headline to get the point. The corporate-politico cabal reigns: Arrange a system that makes public schools look bad--and provokes headlines that the public schools are lousy. The Palm Beach Post headline read: 88% of Palm Beach County schools flunk under U.S. law.

Florida's public schools, including some highly rated campuses around Orlando, were slammed Friday with a bad report card that says only a handful are making enough progress toward educating all students.

Only 13 percent of schools meet standards for proficiency in reading, writing and math set by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation passed by Congress at the urging of President Bush.

In Central Florida, only 78 schools -- about one in eight -- made the grade.

In some of the seven counties, successful schools were few and far between. Only three of 45 Lake County schools and only 17 of 166 Orange County schools met standards.

Friday's showing contrasts sharply with glowing reports from Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, about the progress of Florida schools under his "A-Plus Plan for Education."

About half of Florida schools earned A's and B's in state grading this year based largely on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But those same FCAT scores fall short by the federal yardstick, which the governor acknowledged -- and tried to explain -- after Friday's scorecard was released by the state Department of Education.

"The reason we did not fare well under the No Child Left Behind guidelines is because we didn't punt on our standards," Bush said. He said some other states have set lower benchmarks.

Under No Child Left Behind, every schoolchild in the nation must be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-2014 school year. Each state must set its own standards, define what it means by proficiency on tests and ensure that students make what it considers to be adequate progress each year.

It was hard for Florida schools not to trip up. Elementary, middle and high schools were judged on up to 45 standards. Failure to make adequate progress in one area resulted in a mark against the whole school.

That's because the federal law aims to assure that every child, regardless of race, handicap or ability, is educated. Too often, state assessments concentrate on average students and ignore shortcomings of minorities and other groups, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has complained.

David Scott, principal of Idyllwilde Elementary in Sanford, said the federal "all-or-nothing type of scoring system" makes little sense. After seeing Friday's results, he was frustrated.

A-rated by the state, with large numbers of low-income children, Idyllwilde missed thefederal mark with black students and disabled children in math. Scott said the school will try harder, but said it is unreasonable to expect all mentally handicapped students to score high in academics.

State Education Commissioner Jim Horne downplayed Friday's report cards, saying that pointing out deficiencies would help the schools.

"Even a high-performing school has room for improvement," Horne said.

Statewide, only 408 of 3,177 schools met the state's self-imposed goals for adequate yearly progress under the federal law. Not all schools were graded because there weretoo few students in some categories.

The state overall and each of the 67 countywide school districts also got failing marks.

Many Florida schools singled out Friday earned an A or B on the state's annual report card this summer. That list includes such highly regarded schools as Winter Park and Dr. Phillips high schools in Orange County, Spruce Creek High in Volusia County, and Lake Mary and Winter Springs high schools in Seminole County. "To me, it's really confusing," said Leslie Grubl, the parent of a Lake Mary senior. "Can't the state and federal governments get their acts together so they can get a point across that makes sense to everyone, rather than confusing the issues for parents and students?"

Experts say her reaction may be common, but people will have to sort out the seemingly conflicting evaluations of many schools.

"They are quite capable of making distinctions between schools that really suck across the board and the schools that are not doing well because of one group," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington think tank.

In addition to setting targets for math and reading, No Child Left Behind requires schools to make annual progress in writing. High schools also must make yearly gains in their graduation rates. And all schools must test at least 95 percent of their students in reading and math.

But the new standards are difficult for some schools to meet because students in various racial subgroups, low-income students, those with disabilities and students who do not speak English are evaluated separately. All subgroups must make progress.

At Lake Mary High, for example, 52 percent of students are proficient readers, based on FCAT scores. That earned the school its A from the state.

But as the federal report card shows, only 22 percent of black students read proficiently. Only 16 percent of low-income students can read. And only 12 percent of students with disabilities read as well as they should.

Lake Mary fell short of standards in nine areas. More than half the Florida schools that failed fell short in five or fewer areas, state officials said.

Schools most affected by being named to the list are those that receive federal Title I money to assist low-income students. Out of 3,177 schools statewide, 1,258 on the deficiency list are Title I schools.

High-poverty schools on the list two years in a row must let students transfer to better-performing public schools. Harsher penalties await schools that still don't improve.

Three years on the list and a school gets extra help and is watched. After four years the principal and staff could be replaced. A fifth year of deficiencies could lead to takeover by a private company or the state.

Although the penalties apply only to schools receiving Title I money, other schools branded as deficient facean increasingly criticalpublic.

Many educators say the process is unfair because it tarnishes a school's image without considering such redeeming factors as high-performing advanced-placement programs for high-school students.

Still, Lake County Superintendent Pam Saylor acknowledged that the new evaluation zeroes in on "specific groups of children whose achievement and needs as a group may have gone undetected" in the past.

Nationally, education officials predict that thousands of schools, and up to 80 percent of high-poverty schools, could be tagged as not performing up to par.

So far, 18 states have weighed in, according to the Education Commission of the States, a group of state education leaders that is keeping track.

This week Georgia officials announced a first round of deficient schools, singling out 456that did not make the grade.

— Dave Weber and Lori Horvitz
Few Florida schools excel
Orlando Sentinel
August 9, 2003


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