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Schools could get FCAT storm waivers

Some schools can be forgiven for lower grades due to hurricane havoc, officials say. Students' grades aren't affected.

RON MATUS
Published October 20, 2004

MIAMI - State education officials said Tuesday that some hurricane-ravaged schools can appeal their grades next summer if students show unexpected declines on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

But the same consideration doesn't extend to the students themselves.

The Department of Education's decision came in response to an unprecedented quartet of hurricanes that forced all of Florida's 67 school districts to shut down for at least one day, and shuttered 17 districts for 10 days or more.

Department officials said they didn't want to okay requests from hard-hit districts to simply exempt FCAT grades, because that would imply lowered expectations.

"That's sending a message that this year does not count," Education Commissioner John Winn told members of the state Board of Education at a meeting in Miami.

But at the same time, he said, DOE wanted to acknowledge that the hurricanes may have an impact on student performance.

"I believe this is a fair approach," he said.

Winn said no more than 20 schools statewide are likely to be eligible for a waiver. None are expected to be in the Tampa Bay area.

For now, students won't get a similar safety net, but K-12 chancellor Jim Warford said he expects a discussion on that issue in the future.

"I think we'll also have to take a look at the students within those schools," he said.

FCAT scores are used to gauge how well schools are teaching students and whether they deserve tens of thousands of dollars in state "recognition money." They also determine whether third-graders will be promoted to fourth grade and whether high schoolers graduate with a standard diploma.

Students who fail the FCAT have other opportunities to set things right, said DOE spokesman MacKay Jimeson. High school students have six chances to pass the test before they are denied a standard diploma. And third-graders can take an alternative standardized test or be promoted based on a combination of test results and schoolwork.

"There's a lot of flexibility in place," Jimeson said.

The state already has agreed to delay the FCAT - normally slated for February and March - in more than 20 school districts.

To be eligible for a grade waiver, schools must have been shut down more than five days by a hurricane, have shown good or improved grades over the last three years, and drop at least a letter grade next year. They must also show obvious effects of hurricane damage, such as a high number of dislocated students or classes on double sessions.

Schools that win waivers will be awarded the same grade as last year but will not get recognition money.

"We need to reward progress," Jimeson said.

Escambia County superintendent Jim Paul, whose district suffered an estimated $70-million in damage from Hurricane Ivan, said the waivers were "a good way to do it."

"We may come up with better grades because of the storm," Paul said. "But you just don't know."

At least attendance won't be an issue.

The Escambia district had more students last week than it did before Hurricane Ivan - a sign, Paul said, that students may be more resilient than adults think.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

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