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FCAT 2004

Schools graded a success by state, a flop by feds

Some schools get an A grade under one system and an F under the other. And the poor marks open the doors for mass student transfers, a demand local districts are ill prepared to meet.

By RON MATUS and MATTHEW WAITE
Published June 16, 2004

DIFFERING GRADES
While nearly half of Florida's schools earned an A grade from the state this year, more than three-quarters failed to make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Below are three Tampa Bay area schools that fall into that category, and the reasons for their contradictory grades:
photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
MENDENHALL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY
FCAT PERFORMANCE: 61 percent of students reading at or above grade level, with 73 percent of struggling students making a year's worth of progress; 51 percent of students at or above grade level in math, with 72 percent making a year's worth of progress. GRADE: A.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: Failed because students with disabilities need improvement in math.

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
PINE VIEW MIDDLE SCHOOL PASCO COUNTY
FCAT PERFORMANCE:
73 percent of students reading at or above grade level, with 67 percent of struggling students making a year's worth of progress; 69 percent of students at or above grade level in math, with 71 percent making a year's worth of progress. GRADE: A.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: Failed, because students with disabilities need improvement in math.

[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
EAST LAKE HIGH SCHOOL PINELLAS COUNTY
FCAT PERFORMANCE:
54 percent of students reading at or above grade level, with 55 percent of struggling students making a year's worth of progress; 77 percent of students at or above grade level in math, with 76 percent making a year's worth of progress. GRADE: A.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: Failed, because students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students need improvement in reading.
Source: Florida Department of Education

Florida schools received a mixed message Tuesday.

Under the state's grading system, nearly half of the schools earned A's. Under the federal system, nearly 80 percent were deemed in need of improvement.

The oddity: Hundreds of schools fell into both categories.

The clash in standards is likely to baffle many parents and shine a brighter political spotlight on the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping federal law that anchors President Bush's education agenda.

Up to 1,000 schools that didn't pass federal muster under No Child must now allow students to transfer to other schools, an option that could leave authorities scrambling to reassign thousands of students by the start of classes in August - and then paying the transportation costs.

Nobody is predicting chaos, but school officials are wading into uncharted waters.

"Everybody's kind of learning their way around this," said Walt Bartlett, who oversees federal programs in Hillsborough County.

The big exception: Pinellas County. Its court-ordered school choice plan sharply limits transfers that could interfere with race ratios at each school.

In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush touted the latest round of school grades, which are based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Nearly 70 percent of schools earned A's or B's this year, up from 21 percent in 1999, when FCAT testing began.

Bush said the grades are proof that testing and higher standards are making Florida students smarter and better prepared.

"If you have high expectations for every child . . . and you do not have tolerance for mediocrity, you will get better results," Bush said at a news conference in the Capitol.

The picture isn't as rosy through the federal lens.

While both state and federal standards are based on FCAT scores, the state formula puts great emphasis on improvement. If a school helps struggling students score better on the FCAT, its overall grade gets a boost.

That's why five Florida schools earned A's this year even though fewer than 50 percent of their students passed the reading test. Five other schools, including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas County, got A's despite a majority of their students scoring below grade level in math.

No Child is all about performance.

The federal law requires schools to improve performance every year, overall and for a long list of subgroups that include minorities, low-income children, students with limited English skills and students with disabilities.

If one group fails, the entire school fails.

This year, 77 percent of Florida schools did not make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, the benchmark by which No Child is based. Last year, 84 percent failed to meet AYP.

Gov. Bush took that as progress. He went out of his way to downplay discrepancies between state and federal standards, calling them complementary.

"They measure different things," Bush said. "This will provide teachers and principals and parents a useful tool to be able to say, "Look, my school is doing well, we've had gains . . . but here are the sectors we need to focus on.' "

State Department of Education spokeswoman Frances Marine offered this analogy: An All-Star basketball player dunks, rebounds and nails 3-pointers with ease, but his free throw shooting is poor. In the same way, an A school may need to focus more attention on its students with limited English skills.

Of the 1,200 schools that earned A's this year, more than half did not make AYP.

Not a single high school in the Tampa Bay area made AYP, including the likes of Plant High School in Tampa and Palm Harbor University High School in Pinellas.

And yet, 32 schools that earned C's did make AYP.

Critics say those kinds of numbers can't be explained.

"Parents have good reason to be confused," said state Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, a longtime FCAT critic. "If the students are progressing as well as the governor claims, how is it possible that the overwhelming majority of Florida's schools failed the president's test?"

The results were particularly painful for the hundreds of Florida schools that met most of No Child's criteria, but still fell short of passing.

Under No Child, close is not enough.

The law's goal is for 100 percent of students to be up to snuff by 2014, as measured by each state's standards. Every year a school falls short, new sanctions kick in, including tutors, new administrators and, eventually, a takeover by the state.

The transfer option is first. Schools that serve poor communities are supposed to allow their students to transfer if the schools fail to meet the federal standard two years in a row. This year, 959 schools statewide fit the bill, including scores of them around the Tampa Bay area.

Potentially, hundreds of thousands of parents can now move their children to a higher-performing school.

Practically, it's not possible.

With the vast majority of Florida schools falling short of federal standards, few would seem to offer the alternative a parent would want. At the same time, overcrowding issues effectively limit any mass reshuffling of students.

And most parents don't want to move their children anyway.

A survey last year by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents most of the country's largest urban school districts, found 1.2-million students in 46 cities were eligible to transfer under No Child, but only 44,000 requested a transfer and only 17,000 actually moved.

Surveys shows many parents have broad worries about public education, "but their feelings about their own school are, "It's a pretty good school,' " said Jeff Simering, the group's legislative director.

In Florida, expect a continued trickle of transfers, not a flood, he said.

In Broward County, parents of only 1,600 students requested transfers by a district deadline last week. In Hernando County, 70 students have asked to move.

In Pasco County, which earned its best report card ever this year, 12 schools must offer a choice.

Five of them earned A's, six earned B's and one got a C.

Said Pasco superintendent John Long: "I don't know how many parents are going to want to leave a school that's doing that well."

But there is no denying No Child's political potency. A group tied to teachers unions formed last month solely to slam it. Communities for Quality Education, a coalition of teachers and parents, has been running critical television ads in a handful of swing states, with a heavy emphasis on Florida.

And it's not just teachers and Democrats doing the sniping.

Republicans in conservative states such as Utah and Virginia have been leveling some of the sharpest attacks against No Child requirements.

Bureaucrats in Washington telling states how to run their schools is "exactly the kind of thing (former President Ronald) Reagan preached against," said David Hedge, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

Ironically, it was Gov. Bush who decided how stringently No Child would be applied in Florida, which has a far higher percentage of schools failing to meet federal standards than most states.

The main reason: Florida decided each of the subgroups counted under No Child could be as small as 30 students, which means a few students with poor scores can tip the balance. With most states, the subgroups are bigger, so fewer schools get snared.

On Tuesday, Gov. Bush said he doesn't regret that decision. "We're not going to lower our standards so we can look good," he said.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com Staff writers Joni James, Stephen Hegarty, Letitia Stein and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.

WHAT IS "NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND'?

The No Child Left Behind Act, approved by Congress in 2001, is shaking up American education.

he federal law is the first to set strict performance targets, both for schools and specific groups of students. Those groups include minorities, low-income students, students with limited English skills and students with disabilities.

If even one group fails, the entire school fails.

Schools with a high percentage of poor children - called Title I schools - face sanctions if they don't meet the federal targets. New sanctions kick in every year.

If schools fail two years in a row, students could get the option of transferring to another public school in the district.

After three years in a row, schools must provide tutors.

After four years, districts must step in and replace staff or change curriculum.

After five years, the school is identified for restructuring, which could include a state takeover or conversion to a charter school.

[Last modified June 16, 2004, 01:00:39]


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