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Failing FCAT won't keep all from 4th grade

By STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published June 22, 2003

Fears that almost one-fourth of Florida's third-graders will be held back this year are waning as more youngsters perform their way into fourth grade.

More than 1,000 of the 2,900 Hillsborough third-graders who failed the reading section on the state's FCAT already have qualified to move on, either by passing a different test or demonstrating competence through school work.

The percentage of potential retainees has dropped from 22 percent to about 14 percent. That figure will decline even further after summer reading camps are finished, when many students will take another round of tests that can earn them promotion.

But even if that progress holds true around the state, Florida is still facing the largest number of retentions in its history.

"The numbers that we're talking about are quite large - higher than anything I've ever seen," said Professor James Doud, chair of the Education Leadership Program at the University of Florida. Doud, an educator for 43 years, spent 26 years as a principal.

In early May, when the Florida Department of Education released the first batch of test scores, educators and parents winced at the prospect of holding back 43,000 third graders. That was the number who failed the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

It represented 23 percent of the third-graders taking the test.

Education Commissioner Jim Horne, facing the possibility of scores of angry parents, gave this warning at the time: "I want to avoid this natural assumption that all these students will be retained."

The numbers have been decreasing ever since.

A new state law in effect this year calls for the retention of third graders who fail the reading test. Florida joined a handful of other states that have attempted to strike a blow against social promotion with a tough retention policy.

The goal was to eliminate the following disparity: Last year, 27 percent of Florida's third graders failed the reading section of the FCAT test, and only 3 percent were retained. Gov. Jeb Bush and lawmakers made it very clear that 3 percent retention was unacceptable. Then again, they didn't expect that 27 percent would be retained either.

Like other states, Florida lawmakers provided a pressure valve - a handful of other avenues for promotion. The state refers to those avenues as "good cause."

In Pinellas County, for instance, 1,800 youngsters failed the FCAT reading test. A handful of them immediately passed a different test, which actually has a tougher standard. Another 100 to 120 are expected to earn promotion through a portfolio of test results and school work. Other students were promoted because they already had been retained twice in previous years or because they were special education students retained once. A couple dozen children passed a national test in May.

Taken together, some 660 Pinellas students are slated for promotion due to good cause.

What of the remaining 1,140 children? More than 600 are now getting intensive reading instruction in Pinellas' summer reading camp. After the camp, in late June, the students will have a chance to take the national reading test.

In Hillsborough, roughly 1,000 third-graders are slated for promotion to fourth grade. That includes 400 who will be promoted on the strength of a portfolio of their work. Of the remaining children, more than 1,300 are attending summer reading camp. If they pass the test at the end of camp, they will move on to fourth grade.

"We're giving the children every opportunity we can," said Joyce Haines, general director of elementary education for the Hillsborough schools. "And we're not done yet."

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]


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