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No free pass for poorer readers

The School Board votes to retain more fifth- and eighth-graders who can't read well. Thousands of students will be affected.

Published May 24, 2006

LARGO - Pinellas schools would hold back more fifth-graders and eighth-graders who struggle in reading under a policy approved Tuesday by the School Board.

The policy, approved 6-1, would require fifth- and eighth-graders to demonstrate "adequate reading ability" before they are promoted, using one of three measures.

Students in those grades must score as Level 2 readers or better on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Failing that, they could advance to the next grade if they meet expectations on other district reading assessments or if they show two years of growth on the reading FCAT.

Scores on the FCAT range from Levels 1 to 5, with five the highest.

The new policy affects thousands of students who perform at the lowest reading level in grades 5 and 8. According to scores released Tuesday, more than 1,200 fifth-grade students and more than 2,000 eighth-graders scored at Level 1 in reading in this spring's FCAT.

Educators say Level 1 readers will struggle and be prone to dropping out if their problems are not addressed before they reach high school. Students who still perform at Level 1 as ninth-graders typically move haltingly through sentences and comprehend only some of what they read in textbooks.

Students retained under the new policy would receive intensive help. Eighth-graders who continue to struggle would be required to take a reading class. The district requires all sixth-grade students and struggling seventh-graders to take reading.

The new policy adds two more junctures where a poor FCAT reading score can cause a student to be retained. Third-grade students who score at Level 1 already face the threat of retention.

Many other Florida counties have enacted similar policies for fifth- and eighth-graders as part of the state's K-12 reading plan, said Shelby Harvey, director of middle school education in Pinellas. Another state initiative, the Assistance Plus Plan, also is resulting in such policies, she said.

Assistance Plus mandates that counties act to stem the flow of struggling students into schools with F grades. Since Pinellas' two F schools - Bayside High and Lealman Intermediate - draw students from throughout the county, the district decided that the new policy should affect all Pinellas schools.

Board member Mary Russell cast the lone vote against the policy, saying she saw several problems. She predicted it would result in 13-year-old fifth-graders and eventually prompt students to drop out of school.

She also took a dim view of requiring reading classes, saying the district doesn't have enough certified reading teachers and that the classes don't advance students' reading skills. She said the courses limit students' options in electives that might keep them interested in school.

"I think reading programs are helping kids," responded superintendent Clayton Wilcox. "I don't think they are condemning kids to years and years of failure."

Board member Linda Lerner warned Russell to be careful about generalizing about reading teachers.

In other action Tuesday, the board unanimously approved a five-year contract with its longtime insurance broker, Aon Consulting, and a one-year renewal of its contract with Aetna Health Care.

Aetna's premium for 2007 will be $4-million less than this year's, which translates to a monthly premium reduction of $28.33 for more than 12,000 district employees and 746 retirees.


Area middle schoolers post significantly higher reading scores on the state exam. 3B

[Last modified May 24, 2006, 04:44:16]

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