Pre-FCAT Moves Raise Suspicion
Ohanian Comment: Nothing should shock us about the wheeling and dealing surrounding test scores, but I admit I'm stunned by this one. This is what happens when federal and state rules say numbers are the only thing that count. Kids no longer counts, just numbers.
Nearly 160 Florida schools may have shipped students to new schools just before standardized testing began this year in a shell game to boost school grades, a top education official said Friday.
State officials are focusing on Polk County, where 64 schools -- 40 percent of the 159 identified -- transferred an unusual number of students in the 19 days before the testing began, said Jim Warford, kindergarten-to-12th-grade chancellor for the Florida Department of Education.
About 70 percent of the Polk students who were moved scored poorly on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, suggesting they were moved to avoid making their old schools look bad.
"Everything about the data from Polk raises our suspicions," Warford said.
When the State Board of Education meets Tuesday, Warford said, he will ask for authority to further investigate Polk's transfers and to request information from other districts about the "reasonableness" of their moves.
The number of suspicious transfers was unclear Friday, but it could easily total several thousand students statewide.
Department officials found irregularities in 30 of the state's 67 districts but no other district transferred as many students as Polk did in the three weeks before testing, Warford said. The chancellor, who was traveling, did not have the list of schools Friday, and other department officials could not immediately provide it.
"We have significant concerns; I would use the word grave concerns," Warford said, "about potentially inappropriate transfers in Polk County."
Polk Superintendent Jim Thornhill could not be reached for comment. Polk School Board member Frank O'Reilly said he knew nothing about the state's inquiry or unusual transfers in his Central Florida district.
"This is the first I've heard," he said Friday. "I just can't believe this."
Florida students took the FCAT's reading, writing, math and science exams in February and March. Scores on the state tests are used to determine a school's annual A-to-F grade, which has become a key barometer of school quality in Florida.
Improvement has rewards
Under Florida's "A-Plus Plan," schools with top or improved grades earn extra money from the state. Students at failing schools must be offered transfers to better-performing public schools or tuition vouchers to attend private schools.
Tests scores also are used to judge a school's status under the No Child Left Behind act, a federal school-reform effort. This year's school report cards, federal and state, are expected to be released Tuesday at the state board meeting in Miami.
The state reviewed all of Florida's schools, looking for those where 5 percent or more of the students transferred out in those weeks before FCAT. That percentage of transfers goes beyond the "general patterns of movement," Warford said.
Officials question whether the 159 schools got rid of struggling students so their low scores wouldn't hurt the schools' showing. Under state rules, scores for students who spent most of the school year at one school but switched schools just before the FCAT would not be counted toward either school's grades.
In Polk's case, Warford said, many of the transferred students seem to have been moved to alternative schools, which are not given grades.
O'Reilly, the Polk School Board member, said the transfer of so many students was hard to imagine. "To move 5 percent of our students in 64 schools," he said, "where would we put them? All our schools are crowded."
Warford said the Education Department is continuing to review enrollment data across the state. Any transfers designed to affect school grades would violate the spirit of both state and federal reform efforts.
"My first concern is, are they teaching these students?" Warford said. "The whole point behind No Child Left Behind and the A-Plus Plan is to teach all students and to identify the most at-risk students and make sure they receive the instruction they require."
Critics question testing
Opponents of high-stakes tests such as the FCAT argue, however, that such systems create a pressurized atmosphere that makes schools desperate to increase scores.
The National Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College reported in January that excluding low-performing students from tests was the easiest way for schools to look better. Such moves also were not an unlikely outcome when "schools are under intense pressure to increase test score averages, and are not given the resources or tools for doing so in an educationally sound manner."
The researchers cited examples from Alabama, New York and Texas where schools had either pushed out students, dropped them through administrative action or transferred them to vocational or GED programs to make their test scores look better.
Last year, Oak Ridge High School in Orlando purged its roll of dozens of students in the week leading up to the FCAT, the Orlando Sentinel reported in March. The school's grade bumped up from an F to a D in 2003. That was more than twice the number of students dropped by other Orange County high schools
Principal Brenda Wells said she dropped students who had been chronically absent, not out of an attempt to boost FCAT scores.
Since then, amid a district investigation, she requested a transfer and has left the school.
Warford said he didn't know whether Oak Ridge was on his department's 2004 list.
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