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Middle schools sparkle on FCAT

Sixth- and seventh-graders record their biggest one-year gain ever in reading, though many are still struggling.

By RON MATUS
Published May 24, 2006


For the first time since high-stakes testing began in Florida, middle school students are showing clear signs of progress in reading.

Statewide, 64 percent of sixth-graders and 61 percent of seventh-graders are reading at or above grade level, up 8 points from last year, according to Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results released Tuesday.

The one-year gain is the biggest ever for both grades.

"The focus of our efforts early on were in elementary school, and it appears to me that they have had some results on the middle school years," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who has championed use of the FCAT to grade schools, despite intense opposition from teachers. "But the middle schools themselves have also taken up the mantle of reform."

Until this year, middle school students had shown only tiny annual gains, while their counterparts in elementary schools were making big strides.

This year's numbers still show that more than 40 percent of middle school students struggle to read. But since 2001, the number of sixth- and seventh-graders reading at or above grade level has grown 13 percent - a jump that represents tens of thousands of students.

The same pattern unfolded in all five west-central Florida school districts. Among other factors, educators credited the state's decision two years ago to send hundreds of reading coaches into middle schools to replicate what had been done in the lower grades. More than 90 percent of the lowest-scoring students were given extra help last year.

"Whatever's causing it, something good is happening in Florida," said Al Summers, a director for the Ohio-based National Middle School Association, which represents 180,000 teachers nationwide.

Tuesday's release included math and reading scores for grades four through 10 and came on the heels of third-grade scores that also showed record gains.

Students in grades three through 10 are tested annually in reading, writing and math. Their scores determine whether third-graders are retained, whether high school seniors graduate and what letter grade is assigned to each school.

Tuesday's FCAT release wasn't all glowing. Or without criticism.

Tenth-grade reading scores were again stagnant statewide, with only 32 percent reading at or above grade level - a decline of 5 percent since 2001. Pinellas has fared even worse, with an 11-point drop over that time.

"The latest FCAT results are nothing to brag about," Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said in a written statement.

Fourth-grade reading scores also hit an unexpected snag, falling in every west-central Florida district and five percentage points statewide.

Education Commissioner John Winn cited possible reasons, all tied to the state's third-grade retention policy. They include a higher number of fourth-graders this year who were held back in third grade twice, and a higher number of students who avoided retention by showing through a portfolio of work that they deserved to be promoted.

The state Department of Education could not immediately provide specific numbers for either factor. But Winn said the fourth-grade drop-off could bring renewed attention to the portfolio policy, which some observers call a loophole.

"We just need to make sure that if we're using alternative measures, we're not lowering our standards," he said.

District officials are still scratching their heads over the fourth-grade results.

Even some of the area's best schools, including Curtis Fundamental Elementary in Clearwater, saw a plunge. Last year, 99 percent of its fourth-graders tested at or above grade level. This year, 80 percent did.

One area official suggested this year's fourth-grade test was more difficult, but Winn said a quality control review showed that wasn't the case.

In any event, Bush and Winn accentuated the positive Tuesday.

Overall, the number of students reading at or above grade level in all grades has moved from 47 percent in 2001 to 57 percent this year. The number adequately performing basic math has climbed from 50 to 61 percent.

At the same time, the achievement gap between white and minority students has persistently narrowed. And there are continued gains among disabled students and those who speak English as a second language.

"This does give hope for a whole lot of families and a whole lot of students that, had we not reformed our system, may have ended up being below basic readers," Bush said.

Some middle school experts weren't ready to concede full credit to Bush.

For years, middle school teachers were unprepared to deal with the challenges presented by middle school students - a fidgety tangle of hormones, peer pressure and developing brains - and tailor teaching styles accordingly, said Jeffrey Dow, a former officer with the Florida League of Middle Schools and now a Gainesville-based educational consultant.

But more education colleges are now offering that training, and many teachers are getting it through professional development.

"That's one of the things we've gotten better at in the last five years," Dow said.

Times staff writers Alex Leary, Donna Winchester and Letitia Stein and researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

INSIDE

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ONLINE

For complete FCAT results, including scores for individual schools, go to http://fcat. fldoe.org/