More pupils may face retention
By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
Despite slight gains in FCAT reading scores in the early grades this year, thousands of Florida youngsters could be forced to repeat a grade because their scores fell below state standards.
This year, it's fourth-graders. Statewide, 30 percent of them failed the reading section of the test.
Next school year, third-graders will be under the spotlight.
On Thursday, Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a newly revised Education Code that says, among many other things, that third-graders who fail the FCAT reading section must be held back unless there is other, very specific, evidence they can read.
State law says schools must retain fourth-graders who can't read. When it hits next school year, the new law will be tougher than that.
It is the no-social-promotion law that Bush has wanted since he ran for governor four years ago. After signing the bill on the University of South Florida campus Thursday, Bush was asked if the new social promotions rules will mean more retentions.
"Yes," Bush said. "And there should be more retentions."
Bush and others point out that school districts still have some flexibility, and that the goal is better readers, not retention. The governor has promoted a statewide focus on reading in the past several months.
Bush said parents are ready for a law that ensures that kids are not passed from grade to grade when they can't read.
"If you ask Florida parents, do you believe we should pass kids on when they haven't learned to read, they say "no,' " Bush said.
When looked at in the context of social promotion, this year's reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test tell two different stories.
Reading scores are up in the early grades -- third, fourth and fifth. But the percentages of kids failing -- by falling into the lowest of the state's five achievement levels -- are still in the 25 to 30 percent range.
Among Tampa Bay area school districts, third-grade failures in reading are near the state average, ranging from 18 percent in Citrus County to 28 percent in Pinellas and 29 percent in Pasco. Fourth-grade failures are slightly higher in all those districts.
Pasco Assistant Superintendent Sandy Ramos said Thursday that the district's retention rate has increased slightly. But, she said, what has really changed is what the district is doing to improve reading instruction -- efforts she hopes will make retention decisions moot for most kids.
For instance, Pasco has begun training middle school and high school teachers how to teach reading, and next year will require struggling readers to take an intensive remedial course.
"In the abstract, we all believe kids shouldn't be moved along if they can't read," said Patty Hightower, president of the Florida PTA. "When it's your own personal child, it might be a different matter."
Still, Hightower said, she supports the bill because it at least brings some clarity to the promotion/retention issue.
Janet Carnevali, a parent on the School Advisory Council at Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater, said she, too, agrees that kids must learn to read before they are promoted.
"If a kid isn't reading in third grade, you need to look at the lower levels," Carnevali said. "But relying primarily on the FCAT? I don't agree with that."
Three years ago, legislators thought they dealt with this issue. They passed a law saying fourth-graders should not be promoted if they fail the FCAT reading test. But the law allowed schools to promote those students if there was "good cause."
The result? Last year roughly 3 percent of fourth-graders statewide were retained, although about 30 percent failed FCAT reading.
Many of the state's 57,000 fourth-graders who failed the FCAT reading test this year probably will be promoted. At the same time, educators believe more will be retained this year because of the pressure exerted by the Legislature.
But the new law, which goes into effect next school year and focuses on third-graders, makes it even tougher for districts to promote kids who fail the reading test.
"Before it was like Swiss cheese," Education Secretary Jim Horne said. "Clearly we'll be a lot less forgiving than we were in the past."
But, Horne added, "it's not just about retentions. It's about getting students prepared so we don't have to retain them."
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