School District now holding back fewer students
Ohanian Comment: The opening sentence should stop the reader cold. And it gets worse. Although NCLB is not mentioned in this article, certainly it's theme music is playing in the background. It's the one-definition-must-fit-all mentality in K-3 coming home to roost in middle school. One has to wonder what the school officials were thinking as they retained one-third of their students. Couldn't they count forward and realize how old retained third graders would be in 8th grade?
The thousands of students on whom this Standardisto travesty was played out deserve extensive care and consideration.
By Joe Callahan
OCALA - Last school year, Marion County Public Schools had 171 middle-school students--including one in the sixth grade - who were old enough to drive.
There were 29 students in eighth and ninth grades old enough to vote when the school year ended, and 202 ninth-graders who were already 17.
This happened because the school system has held back thousands of students in recent years: One-third of the 16,000 or so students who were in grades five through nine last school year had been retained at least once.
The school system did this largely because of the state's high-stakes FCAT rule for third-graders: You either pass the reading portion of the test or you repeat third grade.
As a result, the schools either held back students before they got to third grade, in hopes they would improve academically; or they held them back after third grade because of subpar FCAT scores.
According to the school system, once students are retained they become more likely to drop out of high school. Almost no students go on to graduate if they are held back twice.
But academic performance is just part of the reason they leave school. As these startling age numbers suggest, many students drop out in part because of social awkwardness.
Jared Jackson was held back two grades and eventually was a 17-year-old ninth-grader at Forest High School.
"I was like a C student in middle school," he said. "When I got to be two years older than the rest of the class, it got harder and harder and I just quit."
Now, at age 19, he lives with his grandmother and is trying to earn a GED.
To cut down on the number of older kids mixing with younger classmates--and, at the same time, to keep students in school and improve high school graduation rates down the line--the School District is taking a dramatically different approach than it has in years past.
The schools are promoting almost all students in kindergarten through second grades, no matter what. The idea is to promote the struggling students and give them remediation to improve their academic performance by third grade.
School District officials say if a child must be held back, let it be in third grade. They don't want them to be held back twice by third grade.
"It's a major problem that we felt needed to be addressed," Superintendent Jim Yancey said. "Student retention is something we must address so more kids will graduate."
The new policy led the School District to retain just 287 students in 2007-08--77 percent fewer than in 2006-07.
In kindergarten through 2nd grade, only 126 students were held back last year, down from 549 the year before.
Diana Greene, deputy superintendent over curriculum and instruction, issued a videotaped speech to all schools at the end of last school year, urging elementary teachers to retain fewer children in kindergarten through second grade.
School District officials, citing numerous national studies, say that 64 percent of students held back--and 94 percent of students held back twice--never graduate.
"Would you rather us promote them (borderline younger students) and give them a 64 percent chance of graduating, or retain them and give them a 64 percent chance of dropping out?" Greene asked.
"Our research shows we will have a huge problem with dropouts in the future because of FCAT retention ... if we don't change our methods."
It's no surprise that "FCAT" comes up in this discussion. Marion County educators say the third-grade reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test forces their hand because it remains such a powerful force in determining a student's path.
The state says students must score 2.0 or better (on a 5.0 scale) to be promoted. Even if a child has straight A's, he can't be promoted if he scores 1.0. Those scoring 2.0 are forced into reading remediation.
Greene said reading is "the gateway to everything else." She hopes that promoting struggling students and getting them extra help will position them to pass third-grade FCAT and, perhaps, avoid being held back at any stage of their academic years.
"Retention in kindergarten, first or second grade does not produce long-lasting academic gains," she said. "Rather, it increases the likelihood that the students will drop out of high school. This is a huge problem, not only for our community, but our nation."
The prospect of rising high school dropout rates creates a looming problem for the School District in another area: the all-important school grades.
Earlier this year, the Legislature changed the way the state grades its high schools. The old approach - relying on FCAT scores - is out. Starting in 2009-10, year-end exams and dropout rates will also be factored in when the state decides which letter grade - from A to F - to tag on high schools.
Marion administrators have been rightfully proud of the way graduation rates have improved during the past decade.
In 1998-99, Marion's graduation rate was 57.9 percent. It was 74.9 percent for 2006-07 - the 12th best improvement rate in Florida in the past eight years.
But if the schools retain more and more students, the statistics show that more and more will drop out. As those graduation rates diminish, so will high schools' chances at getting a good grade.
Put it all together - the unappealing prospect of having older students mixing with younger, the belief that holding a student back leads to him dropping out, the systemic benefit of keeping graduation rates trending upward - and what emerges is the need to keep students tracking with their peers.
Simply put, no one wants middle schoolers who are old enough to drive. But avoiding that, school officials realize, requires strategic decisions, especially in the early grades.
Osceola Middle School Principal John McCollum said older students are becoming more and more common at all middle schools.
"Though I have not been asked by a student if they can drive to school, other principals have had to address that kind of situation," McCollum said. "The age of our students is something we have been forced to deal with."
Most of those students do not cause problems, he said. Though older than their classmates, many remain immature - mentally, physically and sexually - and fit in fine with the younger students.
However, those who have matured - especially sexually - are moved out of mainstream classes; educators try to find a more challenging and interesting curriculum.
"Most of the time, the reason that child is so far behind is because they have lost interest in school, and we must motivate them and help them get them to the next grade," McCollum said.
Still, even this system has its limits: Greene said any student who is 18 and in middle school is moved to a high school, where he receives instruction appropriate to his academic level.
There are real-world obstacles to making all this work. There are only so many hours in a school day and many state mandates to meet.
Beginning with the 2008-09 eighth-graders, all middle school children must complete 12 units to advance to high school. They will remain in middle school until those credits - three each in language arts, math, science and social studies - are earned.
"If we don't get them straightened out before they get to middle school, then they will just continue struggling," Greene said.
She said a middle school logjam is looming because so many children have been retained in the last several years. There have been 1,428 elementary students who have been retained once and 253 twice.
There are another 287 elementary school children, including 90 fifth-graders, who are three years older than their peers.
"Every single one of those kids will be 16 at some point in the eighth grade, and that's only if they are not retained again," Greene said. "Just promoting is not the perfect answer. That forces us to provide the services for those struggling students to succeed."
In addition to the policy shift concerning retention at the lower grades, the school system also is no longer holding back middle schoolers and high schoolers - although for a different reason.
The bottom line, said David Ellers, the School District's executive director of secondary curriculum, is that at those academic levels the students have specific hurdles - the units that Greene described - they must get past.
Thus, their grade classification doesn't matter as much, and it seems to work better if students believe they are still tracking with their peers.
"You can call them an eighth-grader, a ninth-grader or even a turnip, the bottom line is they have to get 12 units to go to high school and 24 credits to graduate," Ellers said, adding that a high school student must also pass their 10th-grade FCAT.
Many middle-school students don't have any extra class periods to make up classes they need to move to high school.
There are six periods per day in each of their three years, or a total of 18 periods, to get 12 units. At face value, it seems they have two periods per year to retake failed classes.
However, many children are forced into intensive reading courses, which usually take two periods, and that doesn't give them any periods to make up failed classes needed to go to high school.
In response, officials are placing kiosks and learning centers at middle schools to help students master a failed subject.
Deputy Superintendent Greene remembers the day about two years ago when a parent, Margaret Smith, walked into her office to discuss a problem with her son, Mario Newson. He was 16 years old and still at North Marion Middle School.
At first, Greene suspected that the situation might be isolated at North Marion Middle. However, school officials began reviewing data and soon learned that there were many students throughout the county in the same situation. They studied the issue and began mulling possible solutions.
Remember Jared Jackson, the 17-year-old ninth-grader at Forest? He said the further he got behind his classmates, the less he could identify with them. Once he felt that graduating high school was a lost cause, he decided to quit.
He got a job with a roofing company, bought himself a small mobile home and was doing well. Then he was laid off, lost his home and ended up on his grandmother's doorstep, seeking a place to live until he got back on his feet.
Jackson could only stay, his grandmother told him, if he went back to school and took General Educational Development courses in hopes of getting his GED.
"She has done a lot for me," he said. "Now I know I need to go to community college, and then I hope to go to a university. I know that now. I just wish I knew that then."
Chris Sandy, the School District's executive director of elementary curriculum, said that, once school officials discovered what retentions were doing to the School District, they decided to "scrutinize the reasons."
"We believe now that retention is the last possible option," Sandy said.
Teachers now use a new checklist to help determine whether a child will be retained. If the student gets a 2.0 or better in reading on the FCAT, they will be passed no matter what. If the checklist indicates retention because of reading, a principal must sign off.
School Board member Ron Crawford said there are too many state mandates, and they are to blame for the logjam of students getting further and further behind.
He believes one single test should not dictate whether a child passes or fails the third grade. Crawford believes the FCAT and annual end-of-the-year tests should be averaged.
Crawford said the FCAT has its place but should not be the be-all and end-all exam.
"The bottom line is that some kids are better at one subject than they are at others," he said. "Basing retention on one test is not the answer. There are too many state mandates telling us what's best for the children. There has to be a balance."
BACK ON TRACK
Danielle Falconer, who is almost 18, said she dropped out of Forest because she didn't like classmates who showed off family wealth. She also couldn't identify with the younger classmates when she fell two years behind.
"I didn't like them because they were stupider than me, way more immature," she said. "I do wish now that I wouldn't have let that stuff get to me."
She is now motivated to get her GED and go to college. She said dropping out at the time didn't seem that bad, considering her mom had done the same.
For some, it seems the system failed them.
Warren Diaz, 19, an A-B student who had all of his credits, could not pass the reading portion of the 10th-grade FCAT, and thus could not graduate.
Born in Puerto Rico, he said a language barrier was not the problem. Diaz said he was placed in ESOL (English as a second language) classes, which were geared toward lower-performing students. But he was older than the rest of the class, and the instruction was geared to a lower level.
"I have been accepted to [several colleges] and when I told them I didn't have a diploma they withdrew the acceptance," said Diaz, who would have graduated from Lake Weir High this year. "A GED is not the same as a regular diploma in their eyes.''
Eileen Pilliner, the GED program coordinator at the Community Technical and Adult Education Center, said 7,400 people registered for GED classes in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Fewer than 20 percent actually made it through. Jared Jackson hopes to be one of them.
After all, he said, a high school diploma should be considered just the beginning of someone's education.
"You have to go to college," he said, "because a GED will only get you a job flipping burgers."
Joe Callahan may be reached at joe.callahan @starbanner.com or 867-4113.
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