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13% must repeat third grade

Despite the Pinellas school district's reading camp, more students than ever will be held back due to an FCAT mandate.

STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published July 10, 2003

More than 1,000 Pinellas County youngsters will have to repeat third grade in the coming school year, 4.5 times more than last year.

It's the most ever in Pinellas and amounts to about 13 percent of the county's third-graders.

This is the first year the state mandated that third-graders who don't meet state standards in reading should be held back.

"We've never retained students based on a state test before," said Carol Thomas, assistant superintendent of elementary education for the Pinellas County schools. "In the past, it was based on grades, teacher discretion, classroom work. Now these are decisions that have been removed from the schools' hands."

The numbers in Pinellas are expected to be repeated around the state in the coming weeks.

In Hernando, 150 third-graders will repeat the grade, or about 12 percent of the children who took the state's reading test. The previous year, Hernando held back about 1 percent of third-graders.

Pinellas was among the first school districts in the state to start its summer reading camp, designed to give youngsters one more chance to advance to fourth grade. Now that the reading camp is over, Pinellas is one of the first districts to have a clear idea how many of those kids must be held back.

State education officials have warned for more than a year that the number of third grade retentions would explode, ever since state lawmakers toughened the law tying promotion to reading ability. Legislators and Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to stress the importance of having students reading before they started fourth grade. So they drew a line in the sand between third grade and fourth grade.

In short, promotion now depends on a child's performance on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. If a third-grader failed that test, he faced retention - unless he demonstrated reading ability in an alternative methods approved by the state.

That policy change has proven to be quite a shock to a system where 3 percent of third-graders typically repeat the grade.

In early May, when FCAT scores were released, 23 percent of Florida's third-graders were in danger of flunking. That amounted to 43,000 youngsters statewide who failed the reading test.

In Pinellas, the number in danger of retention stood at 1,800 - 22 percent of the third-graders who took the reading test.

Since then the number decreased because the state provided a handful of alternative avenues for promotion for "good cause."

For instance, 291 Pinellas third-graders were promoted because they were special education students who already had been retained before. Another 105 were promoted on the strength of a portfolio of other reading assessments done throughout the school year.

Another 55 third-graders got into fourth grade after attending a summer reading camp, and then passing a tough standard on a national reading test.

One of the kids who passed was 9-year-old Deven Barrett, who took the summer reading camp at Sexton Elementary School with teacher Karen Pirone. "I am so relieved," said Deven's mother, Samantha Faulkner.

The letter arrived Saturday and she and Deven "started jumping up and down," she said. Most of the kids who took the national reading test in late June after the reading camps came up short. All told, 521 kids took the test and 55 passed.

- Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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