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County's FCAT tab in a word: gloomy

Yet, county students surpass the national average in 15 of 16 categories, leading one educator to ask: Is the FCAT too tough?

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002


This year's FCAT paints a pretty depressing picture of how Hernando County's students are doing compared to the standards the state has set for them.

Roughly two-thirds of the county's sixth-graders can't do what the state considers basic math.

Seven of 10 freshmen in the county aren't reading up to standards.

Less than half the fifth-graders are able to do the math the state says they should know.

"I don't think the scores are that good overall," said Linda Peirce, the school district's testing specialist. "A few of the grades are good. But there's an awful lot of red (flags) there."

Contrast that, however, with how Hernando County students faired compared with others around the country, as measured by a lesser-known part of the FCAT assessment that doesn't factor into the state's A to F grading system.

This measure, known as the norm-referenced test, shows that Hernando County's students are above the national average in 15 of the 16 categories.

In most cases, Hernando County's students are performing higher in reading and math than 60 percent of the students around the country.

Charles Casciotta, who oversees curriculum for middle and high schools in Hernando County, said principals are understandably concerned with how they look compared to state standards, which determine cash rewards and the A to F grades that can heap praise, or embarrassment, on their schools.

But he wonders if the FCAT is maybe a little too tough. And, if Casciotta had to pick, he'd rather look good compared to the rest of the country than one state's standards.

"It seems like we are okay compared to the rest of the country," he said. "We're more than okay."

The FCAT tested students in grades three through 10 in reading and math. Students in grades four, eight and 10 were also tested in writing. The scores form the basis of Gov. Jeb Bush's A to F school grading system.

Superintendent Wendy Tellone says Gov. Jeb Bush would probably prefer that she say Florida expects more from its students than other states. But she's not willing to go there.

Tellone agrees that the emphasis on the FCAT has raised standards in reading, math and writing. But she says the national standards are high, too. And she's not sure what the results from one test say about another.

That, of course, is the beauty -- or the farce, depending on your viewpoint -- of trying to evaluate schools by using test data. Sometimes, perspective is everything.

School district officials are still breaking down the scores, but some items stand out.

For one, high school students still struggle to read.

By either measure, Florida's standards or the national rankings, reading among ninth-graders is a substantial problem.

At Hernando High, only 28 percent of the freshmen met the state standards. At Central, only 29 percent met the standard. At Springstead, only 32 percent read to expectations. And unlike other areas, the ninth-graders are even below the national average.

"I worry about that," Casciotta said.

Things aren't much better for 10th-graders.

Explanations as to why high school students struggle to read are hard to come by.

High school teachers aren't trained in college to help kids learn how to read, Casciotta said. The presumption being that students should know how to read by the time they arrive.

Two years ago, the school district began spending roughly an extra $500,000 to improve reading. But most of that money went to helping second-graders.

For another, schools on the county's east end continue to struggle more than others.

Eastside Elementary, Parrott Middle School and Hernando High were the lowest-achieving schools at each of their respective levels.

Eastside, which received a D grade on last year's state report card, had the lowest scores in the county on four of the seven items the FCAT measured. More than 60 percent of Eastside's fourth-graders are below standard in reading, writing and math.

Principal John Finney said he was disappointed in the scores -- the same response he gave last year. This, after the school received extra attention from the county to boost its performance. Tellone said it's obvious now that those efforts failed.

"I'm very disappointed because they worked very hard this year and I thought they had an excellent plan," Tellone said. If there was a bright spot at Eastside, it was a solid performance from its third-graders.

At Parrott, which took home a B on last year's state report card, its students beat the national average. But it fared miserably compared to the state's standards. Less than half its students met the state standards in reading and math.

Among its sixth-graders, only 22 percent -- about one student in five -- met the state standard. Principal Marvin Gordon said he expected difficulty coming into the year. His sixth-grade class includes many of the students who were fifth-graders at Eastside last year, when just 21 percent of Eastside's fifth-graders met the standard.

Even so, Parrott still scored poorly in the seventh and eight grades.

Gordon said his teachers are working hard. And he's hopeful that the picture will improve. Parrott, and the other schools, could look much better once test analysts compute how much each student has improved since last year. That item will factor into the school's letter grade.

With Hernando High, the distance between its performance and those of its sister schools in the county was not as great. In some cases, only a couple of percentage points separated it from Central and Springstead. Yet it managed to pull down the lowest scores in each category.

Moton Elementary, in Brooksville, improved in almost every area. But the major exception to the struggles on the east end was Brooksville Elementary, one of three schools in the county to surpass the state average in every category. Its school average was also well above the national average.

Brooksville's best showing was posted by its third-graders, with 79 percent of them meeting or exceeding the state standards in math.

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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