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Politics of FCAT shadow election

School standards could become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign after results from the test are released.

Published April 18, 2004

State education officials are expected to announce this week that tens of thousands of Florida third-graders have failed the FCAT reading exam and may be held back next year.

If the actual number is anywhere near the more than 40,000 who failed last year - with minority students making up a disproportionate percentage - experts say the fallout could reverberate in the presidential campaign.

"This is a very cagey issue for politicians, especially pro-standards politicians," said Kathleen Porter, associate research director at the Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that supports testing and standards. "Nobody actually thinks there's any problems in their school or with their children. Now they're hit with their child failed.

"The blame game starts."

That game already has started among some politicians, who began firing salvos after last year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results were released. Democrats in South Florida held protests and staged boycotts, calling the test unfair. They said it was unconscionable to hold back thousands of students based on the results of a single test.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who helped organize the protests, is expecting fewer third-graders to fail this year. She said she doesn't think the students are any smarter; she said the state made the test easier because this is an election year and the governor's brother is running for president.

If thousands of third-graders are held back again, "they will have protest after protest every day leading up to the election, and they don't want that," Wilson said.

State officials say that's nonsense.

"It is impossible for us to make the test easier," said Frances Marine, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education. The questions used each year, she said, are chosen by a committee of teachers removed from the political process.

"For an elected official to make these allegations is irresponsible," Marine said.

Offering help

The first round of FCAT results are scheduled to be released Monday. Along with third-graders, high school seniors who have repeatedly failed either the math or reading portion of the test since they were sophomores will learn if they can graduate on time.

Last year, more than 12,000 seniors were denied a standard diploma because they failed the FCAT.

Gov. Jeb Bush says he is optimistic.

"I think what we'll find is that there will be improvement across the board," he said. "My expectation is that with the reforms we've put in place and the focused approach on reading, is that we'll see improvement.

"I think it's going to be good."

School districts across the Tampa Bay area school districts have been reconfiguring summer reading sessions and rebuilding their remediation efforts ahead of this week's release. Struggling students were targeted during the year for extra help. Longer, more focused sessions after the end of regular classes will be available to students who don't make the cut.

"We've had an opportunity to really get prepared," says Carol Thomas, Pinellas County's assistant superintendent for elementary school and exceptional student education. "There has been so much concentrated effort to help students be successful. I've never seen such a push forward."

Typical of the changes made over the year is a Citrus County program that places retained students on a defined improvement plan. The plan specifies which remediation programs the child will attend. Small-group, computer-assisted and extended reading opportunities are provided, said Mark Brunner, coordinator of elementary education for the Citrus schools.

In Hernando and Pasco counties, the summer reading camps mandated for low-scoring third-graders have been revamped. Hernando officials weren't happy with the inaugural camp, which had high student-teacher ratios and an emphasis on paperwork, in part because it was thrown together at the last minute.

Summer Reading Camp in Pinellas will be significantly different from last year, when there was little time to plan. Classes will be 31/2 hours instead of last summer's one hour. Officials expect as many as 2,000 students - three times the number they had last year.

Educators in every district say they will encourage all struggling readers to attend - even those who will be allowed to move on for good cause. Last year, only the potential retainees were invited.

"I'm hoping that when we get our results back we will see some of the fruit of our labor," said Sandy Ramos, Pasco County's assistant superintendent.

Of the students who failed the test statewide last year, 28,028 of them, a record number for Florida,- were held back for another year of third grade.

The smell test

A similar number this year could become an issue in the presidential campaign, especially if two other potential land mines contained within FCAT results explode.

In June, the state will hand out school grades based on Gov. Bush's A+ Accountability plan. Then will come another round of school grades, this one courtesy of the federal government.

For the first time this year, schools are facing punishment under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a key piece of President Bush's education policy. More than 80 percent of Florida's schools were told last year that they failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the act. If they fail again this year, many of the schools will have to offer their students transfers to a non-failing school.

Though Florida's compliance with the law is based entirely on FCAT results, the state and federal systems provide two very different views of school performance. Last year, the governor's plan produced a record number of A-graded schools. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of Florida schools failed to meet the federal standards.

"People are either going to think there is a public school catastrophe and thank God this law is there, or this law doesn't pass the smell test," Bella Rosenberg, the assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of No Child Left Behind. "It doesn't comport with their experience with their schools or their kids."

With standards rising every year under the act, many experts expect the high number of failing schools will increase.

"It's a compiling problem. The bar keeps going up and up," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "It's just almost mathematics. It stacks up on itself. Even very high-achieving schools will have problems."

And if the federal government is telling thousands of parents their children's school is failing, that could have political consequences.

Democratic candidates for president assailed No Child Left Behind during the primaries. Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive nominee, voted for the act, but now labels it an "unfunded mandate" and a "broken promise" by the Bush administration.

"Most fair-thinking people are for accountability and fair standards," said Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau. "But you can't make demands of schools without giving them the resources to meet those demands. It's just a cruel hoax."

Porter, of the Fordham Foundation, said the "unfunded mandate" criticism is hollow, with more federal funding for education than ever before coming with No Child Left Behind.

"It's easier to say that we need more money. It's the easiest thing for politicians to say," she said. "What exactly is the magic amount of money that says, this is funded? The dirty secret is that there is not a magic number, so it's just easier to ask for more."

The Bush administration has made changes to the law, giving districts more leeway on provisions regarding special education students and those with limited English proficiency. But Houston says it won't be enough to drastically change the results.

"It's not just an issue for the Democrats," he said. "A lot of the people who are most upset are Republicans. It's going to be interesting how this plays out."

- Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts, Tom Tobin, Logan Mabe, Barbara Behrendt, Jeff Solochek and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.

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