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Progress on FCAT has federal caveat

Gov. Jeb Bush says Florida's system gives a better picture of how well children are learning than federal standards under which many schools fail.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published June 15, 2006

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
From C TO A: Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School principal Joan Quinn Minnas reacts to the news of her school’s state score on Wednesday. "Oh, you don’t know how hard we’ve worked," she said.

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TALLAHASSEE - A record number of Florida schools earned A and B grades this year, but an increasing number also failed to meet federal standards, according to data released Wednesday.

The disconnect isn't new.

But for the first time since the state and federal grading systems began clashing four years ago, Gov. Jeb Bush said Florida's system is a better gauge than the one that anchors the education agenda of his brother, President Bush.

Asked at a Tallahassee news conference whether parents should pay more attention to the state's school grades than the federal report card, Bush said, "Absolutely."

"With no disrespect to anyone in Washington, D.C.," he said, "I believe our system is the most comprehensive system of measuring how schools are doing based on student learning, by far."

Two hours later, Education Commissioner John Winn went a step further. He said he didn't foresee the state planning for the takeover of hundreds of schools next year, which is one of the options prescribed for schools that continue falling short of the federal "adequate yearly progress" standard.

"We have schools that are doing very well that are closing the achievement gap and achieving at high levels and still not making AYP," Winn said in a teleconference. "I'm going to be hard-pressed to put the federal sanctions ahead of our state accountability system."

The federal standards causing frustration in Tallahassee are at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping 2002 law that initially enjoyed bipartisan support but has since come under fire from liberals and conservatives alike.

As recently as last year, Florida education officials were praising the law and winning concessions from the federal government on how to measure student achievement. But they have since been rebuffed on other requests, including one to shield A and B schools from federal sanctions. And Winn has testified before a national commission on the need to make the federal system more flexible.

Wednesday's federal report card was the big downer on an otherwise sunny day.

Some 2,074 Florida schools, or 75 percent statewide, earned A's or B's this year, up from 1,843 schools and 67 percent last year. Most dramatically, 87 percent of middle schools landed in the top tier, up from 63 percent a year ago.

School grades are based on math, reading and writing scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is given to students in grades 3-10 every year. This year's scores showed, for the first time, substantial reading gains among middle schoolers.

The number of D and F schools also plummeted, from 308 to 153, though part of the decrease stems from new legislation that allows alternative schools, which cater to students with behavior and attendance problems, to be rated by a point system instead of letter grades.

In west-central Florida, Pinellas schools continued to outperform the state average, with 78 percent earning A's and B's. The number of Hillsborough and Pasco schools in that category jumped 10 percent, to 74 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

After the news conference, Bush said he believes the success of the FCAT and the school grading system will shield it from attack after he leaves office in January 2007. Polls show a majority of teachers and parents do not like the high stakes use of the FCAT, despite national yardsticks that show Florida elementary school students are making some of the biggest gains in the country in reading.

Meanwhile, both Democratic candidates for governor are promising big changes.

"Now people can see that you can, if you organize yourself right, make sure that all children learn," Bush said.

The federal report card offered a different picture.

This year, 72 percent of Florida schools (1,983) failed to make adequate yearly progress, up from 64 percent last year. More than 500 of them are high-poverty schools that failed to meet the federal standards for a fourth year in a row, which means they will be in line next year for a potentially dramatic shakeup.

Of this year's of A and B schools, 1,233 failed to make the federal cut, even though both the state and federal systems are based on FCAT scores.

The rub is, they slice the scores in different ways.

The state system takes into account overall student performance, but also considers relative improvement among the lowest-performing students. A school's overall scores may be modest, but if its struggling students are making gains, then the school can be propelled to an A or B.

The federal system looks at scores for a slew of subgroups, including minority, low-income and disabled students. A school's overall scores can be excellent, but if even one subgroup fails to meet benchmarks for proficiency, it is deemed in need of improvement.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesman declined to comment on Bush's and Winn's statements.

But one No Child Left Behind supporter said the remarks were "disappointing."

The federal report card offers parents valuable information that can't be found in a school grade, and better pinpoints which student groups need more attention, said Dianne Piche, executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

"If I look at my son's GPA and I find that he has a 3.0, that might look really good," Piche said. "But if I look at his actual report card and I see he's bringing home a C in math ... I can take some remedial action to get his math grade up."

The state and federal systems also differ on consequences.

Under the state system, schools that maintain an A grade, or rise a letter grade to at least a C, earn "school recognition money" - $100 per student - that is usually converted into modest teacher bonuses.

Schools that earn failing grades get extra help and oversight from the state.

Under the federal system, sanctions apply only to schools that receive Title I money, which is offered to those with high proportions of low-income students. The penalties get more dramatic every year a school fails to pass muster.

Last year, Title I schools that failed to meet federal standards for a third year had to offer hundreds of thousands of students free, private tutoring.

This year, schools that fall short for a fourth time must offer tutoring again. They also are dubbed in need of "corrective action," which could mean replacing staff, changing curriculum, extending the school year or school day or appointing an outside expert for guidance.

Perhaps more importantly, they begin sliding quickly to what could be a major overhaul.

Title I schools that fail to make enough progress for a fifth consecutive year, which could include more than 500 Florida schools next year, must prepare for one or more of the following options: takeover by the state, takeover by a private company, conversion to a charter school, firing of top staff, or some other major restructuring.

"Once you get in the fourth year, the clock is ticking," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. "What it does undoubtedly is create more pressure on principals and teachers" to improve.

But other observers say No Child's tough language comes with a big loophole.

So far, most districts in the handful of states where the Year-Five options have come into play have used the last option - any other major restructuring - to impose much more modest changes on their schools.

In Florida, there is no indication districts will do otherwise, and Winn's comments Wednesday suggest the state will not force them to come down harder.

Without more federal pressure, states and districts "are going to take the path of least resistance," said Michael J. Petrilli, a former U.S. Department of Education official who now works at the Fordham Foundation.

In Pinellas County, district officials will be looking at changes, including the possibility of additional math and reading coaches, for more than two dozen schools that failed to meet federal standards again.

Three of those schools have consistently earned A grades.

"That is a disconnect," Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox said. But the bottom line is that even an A school "has to go back and ask if it's reaching all the kids."

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto and Donna Winchester and Times researchers Connie Humburg and Matthew Waite contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 18, 2006, 11:16:41]

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