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FCAT

FCAT scores show improvement

Overall, third-graders' reading and math scores are up slightly and fewer risk being held back.

By RON MATUS
Published May 12, 2005


Florida third-graders made modest gains this year on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, with a small uptick in the number reading at grade level and slightly fewer at risk of retention.

The improvement comes despite last year's hurricanes, which forced schools in 17 districts to shut down for 10 or more days.

Gov. Jeb Bush announced the results at Charlotte County's Peace River Elementary School, which saw the number of students reading at grade level or above jump from 56 percent last year to 80 percent this year despite being one of six Charlotte schools destroyed by Hurricane Charley.

"In the counties impacted by the hurricanes, but for a handful of examples, the gains were higher in those schools then they were in the schools not hit by the storms," Bush said. "I'm in awe of you all."

Statewide, the percentage of students reading at grade level or above increased from 66 to 67 percent. The number at the bottom level dropped from 22 to 20 percent.

And as a whole, districts hardest hit by the hurricanes did better than their peers.

"Not too shabby," said Education Commissioner John Winn.

In west-central Florida, Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties showed gains in grade-level readers, while Hernando stayed in place and Hillsborough dropped a percentage point.

The results show Pinellas now tops the state's seven urban districts in reading.

Overall, math scores were up, too.

Still, Wednesday's numbers mean setbacks for tens of thousands of individual students.

About 40,600 third-graders may be held back because of low reading scores. At least 10,700 high school seniors won't graduate with a standard diploma.

"Emotionally, I don't think she can handle being retained," said Citrus County parent Joyce Rutan, whose third-grader, Caitlin, might be held back. "I will pull her out and put her in a private school before I let her fail."

Wednesday's results also appear to show Florida students are losing ground to their peers in other states. Scores on the SAT-10 test, administered along with the FCAT, put Florida third-graders at the 50th percentile nationally. That's down from the 62nd percentile last year, when third-graders took an earlier version of the test called the SAT-9.

Winn said it's difficult to make a comparison because the tests are different - a view seconded by the testmaker, Harcourt Assessment Inc.

Students tend to do better on the older test because their scores are compared with the original test-takers and students generally score higher over time, said Harcourt spokesman Mark Slitt. In the case of the SAT-9, the original students took the test in 1995. They took the SAT-10 in 2002.

"A dropoff in scores when you're switching from one norm-referenced test to another is fairly common," said Harcourt spokesman Mark Slitt.

But Joseph Pedulla, an education professor and testing expert at Boston College, said the level of dropoff in Florida's scores is "a red flag." The tests are designed to be fairly comparable, so the numbers should not shift much, he said. "I'm really perplexed by that big a drop."

Around the state Wednesday, schools didn't think twice about the SAT-10. The focus was on FCAT scores, which will help determine whether teachers get bonuses and potentially expensive mandates kick in under federal standards.

The majority were celebrating.

Some 951 schools showed improvement in the number of students reading at grade level, while 703 lost ground and 109 showed no change.

Statewide, the percentage of students reading at grade level has risen 10 points since 2001 - a credit, Winn said, to the state's focus on reading in early grades. The state has trained thousands of teachers in reading instruction and put a premium on identifying reading problems early on.

Suburban Seminole County, near Orlando, also credited a can-do attitude among principals. Seminole scored a one-point gain in grade-level readers, but reduced Level 1 readers - those who score at the bottom - from 25 percent to 12 percent.

"We did doggone good, didn't we?" said Rita Ramsey, Seminole's elementary education director.

In Pinellas, Gulfport Montessori Elementary got mixed news.

After seeing its number of grade-level readers drop last year, the school rebounded with a 10-point increase, one of the biggest jumps in the district. But the percentage of Level 1 readers stayed roughly the same, at 34 percent.

"I know I feel as a principal that I have failed that child," said principal Lisa Grant.

For many districts, it appears the hurricanes did not hurt - and may have helped. The reasons remain unclear.

Officials in the hardest-hit districts say in the aftermath, communities came together, teachers focused and students were thrilled to be in school, contributing to improved FCAT scores. Two counties - Charlotte and Indian River - were among the top 10 districts in overall gains.

But some observers say some schools and districts may have benefitted from fluctuations in enrollment, as students were forced to transfer or drop out.

In Charlotte County, enrollment dropped by 1,100. In Indian River, it grew.

"We're determining that right now," Winn said of a possible displacement factor. "We want to know what the real results were."

Until this year, the number of students reading at grade level or above had increased at a steady clip of 3 percent a year. But Winn said it's too early to declare a slowing trend and noted black and Hispanic students continue to make the biggest gains.

He said the latest FCAT results show the state's third-grade retention policy is working.

Last year, 59 percent of retained students scored Level 2 or above. Level 2 is not considered grade level but is high enough for promotion.

This year, 61 percent of retained students scored Level 2 or above.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com Times researcher Connie Humburg and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

EXPLAINING THE FCAT

The scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test are broken into five achievement levels, 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. The test measures how well students have mastered Florida's curriculum standards.

LEVEL 1: The student has little success with the challenging content of the standards.

LEVEL 2: The student has limited success with the content.

LEVEL 3: The student has partial success with the content, but performance is inconsistent. Answers many test questions correctly but is generally less successful with questions that are the most challenging.

LEVEL 4: The student has success with the content. Answers most test questions correctly, but may have only some success with questions that reflect the most challenging content.

LEVEL 5: The student has success with the most challenging content of the Sunshine State Standards. Answers most questions correctly, including the most challenging questions.

Source: Florida Department of Education

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 00:32:04]


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