Nearly one in five third-graders may be held back in Broward
''From day one, it's FCAT, FCAT, FCAT,'' said Sammie Johnson, whose son Kalib is in third grade.
By Nirvi Shah
Few schools worked, studied and sacrificed more to do well on the state's FCAT than Lauderdale Manors Elementary School.
The school's 630 students cut back on field trips and extracurricular activities to prepare for the test. The principal, Heather DeVaughn, wrote a catchy FCAT jingle and even rewarded good essays with free bicycles.
But DeVaughn and principals across the state got a sobering -- and in some cases, shocking -- assessment of how third-graders did this year statewide in reading.
Nearly one in five Broward third-graders -- about 4,200 students -- failed the test and may have to repeat third grade, according to the results of FCAT scores released Wednesday. It's the first time Broward's scores have dropped since the state began requiring the test for promotion to fourth grade in 2002.
''It's just sad that it's all about the test. One test score tells about your whole school,'' said DeVaughn, who has about 40 third-graders who failed the test.
Third-graders in Miami-Dade, Broward and across the state fared worse than last year on the state's key reading test. In addition, the percentage of Florida third-graders scoring at or above grade level on the reading portion of the FCAT also fell, from 75 percent last year to 69 percent.
While reading scores were a disappointment, students scored better in math -- 74 percent of Florida third-graders performed at or above grade level compared with 72 percent last year. In Miami-Dade and Broward, the percentage who are working on grade level increased slightly -- from 69 to 70 percent and 77 to 78 percent respectively.
But promotion doesn't hinge on math scores.
''Are we concerned? Clearly, we're always concerned,'' said Broward Acting Superintendent Jim Notter. ``You always want to find a root cause rather than just symptoms.''
The FCAT has polarized Floridians. Proponents say measuring schools' performance is a necessary gauge of how well educators are doing. But teachers and parents have complained for years that the test stifles learning because it places too much emphasis on a school's performance and not enough on nurturing creativity and a love of learning.
Third-grade scores on the reading and math test are one component of school's total grade. The overall grade also includes 4th- through 11th-graders' performance on the reading, writing, science and math FCAT, which will be released in the coming weeks.
''Now there's going to be more and more pressure on students and teachers and schools and communities to raise those test scores,'' said Gloria Pipkin, president of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform, a grassroots organization of parents and others opposed to the test.
``You can only pump so much hot air into a balloon before it pops.''
Gov. Charlie Crist, who promised to review the test during his election campaign, did not comment on the decline in reading scores.
''I continue to believe that strong reading skills lay the groundwork needed for success in school, in our economy and in life,'' he said in a statement.
State officials had no explanation for the drop, which came the year after a much-celebrated spike in scores.
The scores were so good last year that then-state Education Commissioner John Winn said it might be time to raise the bar for third-graders. But in the wake of Wednesday's results, acting Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg said making the test more difficult is unlikely.
''When you see numbers like this throughout the state that are this depressed, you have to ask the question about the test rather than the test-takers,'' a frustrated Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew said.
But scores this year didn't drop because the test changed, state officials said.
They reasoned that last year's results were simply remarkable -- especially given that the school calendar was cut short by hurricanes.
''We don't think the performance of third-graders in any way is a downturn,'' state testing director Cornelia Orr said. ``It's just that last year's performance was stellar.''
Also perplexing to principals: Some schools, like Lauderdale Manors, followed the same model as last year yet didn't do well, while others did.
At Gator Run Elementary in Weston, Principal Susan Sasse was thrilled after learning that just 2 percent of her third-graders failed the reading test.
''Way to go!'' Sasse told staffers Wednesday morning.
Making poor readers repeat third grade is not arbitrary. Research shows that as children advance, textbooks become more important for learning. Students unable to read about English, history or math quickly fall behind.
Nearly a fifth of the 201,894 third-graders who took the FCAT this year failed statewide. For the past five years, the state has required students who fail the reading test to repeat third grade.
But there are a few exceptions.
They can be promoted using results from another exam. They can attend summer reading classes and earn promotion at the end of those lessons if they pass yet another test. Kids can also compile a detailed, comprehensive portfolio of their work.
And students with disabilities or learning English can be exempt from the requirement.
Although third grade is the first year students take the FCAT, preparation starts in kindergarten. Kids are tested and their lessons tailored to specific needs for better reading.
But all that test preparation comes at the dismay of many parents.
''From day one, it's FCAT, FCAT, FCAT,'' said Sammie Johnson, whose son Kalib is in third grade at Lauderdale Manors. He is confident Kalib passed, although parents won't know their children's results until Friday or early next week.
``You cannot base a child's progress or his skills over one test.''
Miami Herald staff writer Tania deLuzuriaga contributed to this report.
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