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Schools strive for zest after FCAT hurdle

Having passed that testing milestone, teachers try to keep pupils motivated for the rest of the academic year. It isn't easy.

Published April 11, 2005

For all the times Largo Middle School teacher Pat Clark has read the novel Stone Fox , she still finds herself near tears at the end. So do many of her sixth-graders.

It's the story of 10-year-old Willy, who enters a dog sled race hoping the prize money will save his grandfather's Wyoming farm from the tax collector. His biggest obstacle: Stone Fox, a American Indian mountain man with a team of sled dogs that have never known defeat.

Tragedy strikes when Willy and his dog Searchlight approach the finish line. A selfless gesture brings the story to a heart-stabbing close.

It's the kind of fiction that hooks kids on reading, said Clark, a veteran teacher and head of the school's language arts department. Yet it's not a book she focuses on before the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in March.

Most of the FCAT's reading questions are based on non-fiction passages, so Clark spends 70 percent of her time from August to March on biographies, news magazines and articles.

"Then after the FCAT I actually reverse it," she said recently, during the first week after the test. Before school ends on May 17, Clark said, "I'm going to be teaching the things that really, I think, sucker the kids in and get them really involved in the books."

Her late-year adjustment is one of the many ways Florida schools change in the six or seven weeks of classes that follow the FCAT.

It is an awkward time for educators - so close to the end of the year that students and teachers can almost feel summer's warm breath, yet far enough away that the remaining days add up to a whopping 20 percent of the academic year.

Schools spend the first seven months of the year in an all-out push to succeed on the FCAT. There are FCAT practice tests, FCAT posters and slogans, even FCAT pep rallies. Principals lavish attention on lower performing students, knowing their scores can bring down the school's grade. FCAT vocabulary words are part of every class - even P.E..

Then, suddenly, the test is over.

"It's like the vise is released," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union and no fan of high stakes standardized tests.

With no big test to shoot for and spring fever on the rise, educators say many students lose focus in April and May. That was enough of a concern that Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox sent a taped phone message to every student's home just before spring break ended.

"Please stress with your child or children how important the rest of the school year actually is," the message said. "Don't let them think for one moment that because FCAT is over, the school year is over."

Wilcox faced the issue in his previous job in Baton Rouge, La. In too many classes, he said, "nothing happened" after Louisiana administered its standardized test.

"If we're going to blow off seven weeks out of the school year, we're in big trouble because we don't have enough time now to teach all the things that teachers want to teach," he said.

The issue came up last month on a Web site where Pinellas teachers can anonymously air gripes. One teacher, also a parent, lamented: "I am filled with the knowledge that my son ... will be exposed to substitute teachers and videos in amazing quantity for the rest of this school term." The teacher rallied colleagues to "revolt" against the FCAT, "put some zest" into their classes these final weeks and "let the students find out the true meaning of learning without anything hanging over all of your heads."

Some teachers say they push ahead in April as if it were the third week of October. Others say their post-FCAT focus is decidedly different, with the remaining weeks used to explore lighter subjects while still teaching important elements of the Sunshine State Standards.

It is also a time, many said, to prepare students for the next grade.

In the lingo of curriculum mavens, the focus in the months leading up to the FCAT is on the "need to know" and "important to know" skills. Now it's time to teach more of the "nice to know" parts of the state standards.

At Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater, teachers can spend more time on the school's main "attractor" - a focus on art and music.

"After getting the FCAT over with and having that stress relief, it's a joy ... It's a wonderful time for us," said principal Sheila Jaquish.

"Now's the time you want to do what you like and do what the kids really like," said Bill Cooper, principal of Largo Middle. But if it's just "busy work," he said, "students will see through it really fast" and discipline can become a problem.

Just before spring break, Cooper sent out a notice in the school newsletter that wiped the slate clean for all students regarding discipline. But those who get more than one disciplinary referral in the final weeks of school will not be allowed to attend "reward activities" such as field trips, parties and dances.

"All of us have a tendency to go, "Whooo. The FCAT's over, and we're getting near the end of the year,' " Cooper said. "But you try to get everybody on a focus that you still are a school and you are a school until the last minute of the last day. ... A lot of new material is going to be covered now. These are very important days."

Do some teachers grow lax after the FCAT?

"That probably happens," said Jan Rouse, an associate superintendent in charge of curriculum. But she said it shouldn't.

"Parents expect a year's worth of learning," she said. "I think we have an obligation to do a year's worth of instruction ... Things shouldn't come to a screeching halt because FCAT is over."

Andrew Crider's eighth grade social studies class at Meadowlawn Middle School started the year with Florida geography, then moved into government as the November election approached. Two units on American history took him into mid-February. Through it all, he gave his students FCAT practice tests.

Though the FCAT does not test social studies, social studies teachers are told to give practice tests that mirror what students will face on the reading portion of the FCAT.

By last week, Crider was well into a required unit on personal finance that concludes with a field trip to the district's Finance Park. He gave each student a make-believe situation that detailed their income, assets and family.

Crider had his five classes picking cars from newspaper ads, based on a monthly payment they could afford. Don't bother choosing a sports car, he told the students with two imaginary children.

The exercise had him happily running from desk to desk.

"Mr. Crider, look how pretty the Lexus is."

"Mr. Crider, can I afford this car?

"Mr. Crider ... Mr. Crider ... Mr. Crider!"

The exercise made the subject personal to them, he said. "They buy into it. They stay engaged more."

It's lighter fare than autumn's American government class, but no less structured or important, Crider said.

"They're very perceptive to your attitude and the way your feeling that day," he said of his students. "If they view that I've checked out for the end of the year, well then they're going to do the same thing as well."

Teaching can become "more demanding" in the weeks after the FCAT, said Mike Malinka, a math teacher at Meadowlawn. "You need to find innovative, inventive, fun things for them to do," he said. "Because the kids think school's over."

He asked a fellow teacher if she agreed. "No," she said. "I don't think so."

Malinka turned to another colleague: Do the kids think school's over?

Her exaggerated eye roll said yes.

Clark, the Largo Middle teacher who teaches Stone Fox , said she presses hard until the school year ends - partly because she wants to see her students succeed but also for reasons she admits are "totally selfish."

Her sixth-graders, she notes, will be tested at the beginning of seventh grade to assess how much they learned this year.

"I don't want them to look like buffoons; that means I have quit working," Clark said. "It's like being a parent to 150 kids. You want them to reflect well on you."

[Last modified April 11, 2005, 01:17:31]

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