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FCAT 2004

Elementary students outshine the rest on Florida test scores

By MATTHEW WAITE
Published May 11, 2004

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Florida students in most grades fared a little better on this year's FCAT, but middle and high school students continue to lag far behind their elementary school counterparts.

Statewide, students in three grades had lower scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results released Monday: eighth- and 10th-graders in reading and sixth-graders in math.

Since 2001, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the state's reading standards has dropped at every step up the grade ladder. The declines start in fourth grade and bottom out in ninth grade.

Even in categories where the scores of middle and high schoolers rose this year, their improvement was dwarfed by much larger gains in elementary school levels.

One result: Third-graders are now more than twice as likely as ninth-graders to read at or above their grade level.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who came to St. Petersburg's North Shore Elementary School to tout the gains made, acknowledged Monday that the upper grades need more attention.

"We're on the right track, particularly in the lower grades," Bush said. "The challenge is now to take what we have learned . . . in the elementary schools and transfer that to the middle schools."

Monday's results provide only limited clues about upcoming school grades and the federal No Child Left Behind accountability standards, both of which are based on FCAT scores but measure different areas.

School grades are split into two parts: achievement and improvement. Improvement scores track individual students from year to year, and some schools get more than half of their school grade from improvement. Improvement figures won't be available until mid June, when grades are released.

Under the No Child standards, FCAT scores are used to determine if a school and eight subgroups in the school - including racial and ethnic groups, students with limited English skills and poor students - are making progress toward a goal of all students passing the test. Last year, more than 80 percent of Florida schools failed to meet those goals.

Results for the eight subgroups also are expected to be released in June.

Also released Monday were results of the science test for fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders. This is the second year Florida students have taken the science test, and scores for fifth-graders improved a point, eighth-graders dipped a point and 10th-graders slid three points. The science test will be added to the school grading formula in the 2006-2007 school year.

One of the quirks in this year's data was the large gains registered by fourth-graders in reading and math. Their scores jumped 10 percentage points over last year, by far the largest change across grades.

It wasn't a huge surprise because last year was the first year of large-scale retentions among Florida third-graders. The lowest scoring third-graders last year were third-graders again this year, helping the fourth grade results.

To partisans on opposite sides of the debate over the FCAT, the results were a half-empty/half-full view of public education in Florida.

The Florida Department of Education noted that a slight majority of the state's students are reading at grade level for the first time.

Democrats said the fact that almost half of all Florida students can't read at grade level is not cause to celebrate.

"These results show an inefficient system that is leaving too many children behind," said House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine. "We cannot continue to call our state successful in education when we are consistently leaving behind between one-third and one-half of all Florida students."

Bush derided critics of the FCAT, saying they were aiming for "partisan points" and were denying students the chance to be proud of improving scores.

For most schools and most districts, Monday was mixed news. Some scores were up and some were down. Many were at a loss to explain the slide in scores as students move up in grades.

Bush said part of the problem could be life changes for kids. Elementary school students enjoy school, he said, while teens may not be connecting school performance to their future.

But some of the slide is because of emphasis, Bush said. Elementary schools have been getting more attention and resources for years, he said.

That will change now that the Legislature has approved $13-million to increase the number of reading coaches in middle schools, Bush said.

"They need the same type of reform and attention we've seen in elementary schools," he said.

Bush and Pinellas School Superintendent Howard Hinesley said improvement won't come quickly. Hinesley said higher scores could come next year "if we get the dollars in time, and if we get the programs up and running."

Hernando Schools testing coordinator Linda Peirce was at a loss to explain some of the declines in her district, especially in the eighth grade. She said it is likely the administration will devise a countywide plan of attack to improve eighth grade instruction.

Kathy Divine, director of research and evaluation in Pasco County, said the phenomenon of declining scores in higher grades raises questions about the standards embedded within the ninth-grade test.

For River Ridge High School Principal Tammy Rabon, the declines between eighth and ninth grade is cause to question how the students are graded.

"I've worked with these kids," she said. "They don't get stupid."

- Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and staff writers Alisa Ulferts, Rebecca Catalanello, Jeffrey Solochek and Logan Mabe contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 11, 2004, 01:51:11]


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