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    Schools urge: Don't skip FCAT

    With a lot at stake for teachers and students, educators work to dispel talk of an FCAT boycott.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 2, 2003


    There is plenty that Donna Moore doesn't like about the FCAT test.

    She doesn't like the school grades that result from test scores. She objects to the built-in rewards and penalties. She resents the pressure on kids and teachers.

    Despite all that, the Largo mom will be sending her daughter, Danielle, to school on Monday at Walsingham Elementary to take the FCAT.

    "She wants to take it. She wants to please her teacher," Moore said of her third-grade daughter. "At this point, I think it would be more stressful for her if she didn't take it."

    Some parents in the Tampa Bay area, and around Florida, have done some educational soul searching on the eve of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which begins Monday.

    To a very limited extent, that sort of thing happens every year. But this year is different.

    For one thing, the stakes are higher, especially in third grade, where children who fail the FCAT reading exam are likely to be held back next school year.

    The stakes are high for 10th-graders who must pass the FCAT to get a standard diploma. And the pressure is on for the more than 12,000 high school seniors -- including at least 1,200 in the Tampa Bay area -- who have failed FCAT repeatedly and have one last shot before graduation.

    The other factor is that the possibility of simply saying "no" to the exam suddenly became real for parents this year.

    When Pinellas School Board member Mary Russell said her two children would boycott the FCAT, her stand generated a surprising level of controversy. She received e-mails, pro and con, from parents around the state. Though she says she never urged others to follow her example, Russell's boycott piqued the interest of parents, many of whom have been silently uneasy about the test.

    Reports of Russell's boycott revealed something many parents didn't know: For most kids there are no serious consequences for skipping the test.

    Though state law says the test is mandatory, there is no mention of any penalties.

    Educators and state officials hope parents send their children to school for the test. Since 1998, the reading, writing and math test has been the foundation of Florida's school accountability system. A science segment has been added this year in grades 5, 8 and 10.

    In the past week, principals and parents have debated the merits of the test, as have teachers and students. Pinellas County sent home notices, urging parents to "plan for your child to be in attendance for the test."

    It appears the pleas of educators will win out.

    Though several parents say their kids will skip the FCAT, there are no signs of significant no-shows on test day.

    "Even with what has happened, I don't see any widespread boycott this year," said FCAT critic Gloria Pipkin, coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform.

    State officials expect that most of the 1.5-million eligible to take the FCAT this year will do so.

    "I think next week will be business as usual. At least I hope so," said Education Commissioner Jim Horne. "Every year there's some boycott talk, though not quite at this level. But nothing much has come of it in the past."

    Coincidentally, Horne has children in grades 3 and 5, just like Mary Russell.

    "They'll be there," Horne said of his children. "And I hope they do well."

    Christine Black of Apopka in Orange County had thought about keeping her fourth-grade daughter home on test day, but "I never thought that I could."

    Finally, she decided she could have Brittany skip the test.

    "She's going to have to miss school for the next two weeks," Black said. "They told me if my daughter showed up at school, they would give her the test. It's required by law."

    She will teach her daughter at home for the two-week testing period.

    Chrisshun Cox of St. Petersburg made a similar decision for her son in eighth grade, her daughter in ninth grade, and her nieces and nephew in elementary school. But they won't miss school.

    "I don't want them to be marked absent," Cox said. "My highest priority is my children's education. They will be in school, but they will not participate in the test."

    Other parents struggled with the issue but reached different conclusions.

    "The bottom line is my kids," said Shawn Lasseter of Palm Harbor, who has a daughter in first grade and a son in fourth. "I have strong feelings about it. We all went through tests when we were growing up, but it wasn't the primary focus like it is today.

    "But what if I make a decision not to send them, and it comes back to bite them later?"

    At Osceola Middle School, principal Robert Vicari heard that a parent at his school was considering keeping her daughter home.

    "I gave the mom a call and we talked about it," Vicari said. He said he explained that regardless of the school grade and other factors, he believes the test results help school officials place students in the appropriate classes.

    "Placement decisions are based on all the information we have," Vicari said. "This is a key piece."

    He expects the girl to show up on test day.

    "We'll have a full house," Vicari said. "I can pretty much guarantee it."

    -- Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

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