tampabay.com

Report says some students benefit from grade retention

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published November 17, 2006


The state's policy of holding back third-graders who score low on FCAT reading has generated its share of bad publicity since it came to pass three years ago.

We heard of 8-year-olds vomiting from the stress of the test. Next came tales of forlorn children worrying their way through "summer reading camp."

Many educators quickly found ways around the retention rule, relying on the six alternative promotion methods in the law, four of which have nothing to do with academic performance.

Now comes a largely overlooked analysis by the Legislature's auditing arm that asserts the retention policy has worked despite the hue and cry.

You might want to dismiss this as partisan posturing, but first look at the agency's findings.

Nearly two-thirds of children who repeated third grade after failing the FCAT reading section did better the second time and then maintained their growth in fourth and fifth grade.

In contrast, fewer than half of the students who scored at the bottom on FCAT reading but got an alternative promotion to fourth grade had improved reading results the following year.

That includes the students who won promotion by passing a secondary test or demonstrating their knowledge with a portfolio. They constitute about one-third of the total; about 70 percent of them did better on their test performance.

Surprised?

Area educators aren't.

"We have seen that the ones we have retained, it has made a difference," said Mary Fernandez, principal at Lutz Elementary School and a 30-year educator. "They have done better."

Part of the answer, Fernandez said, is making sure the kids don't consider themselves to have failed. Parents and teachers must give the support to point toward a successful year.

Teachers understand the importance of all this, and they have become more accountable to the children because of the high stakes placed on the test, added Michaelle Blamey, a 16-year educator who taught third grade at Alexander Elementary the past two years.

"It has made us more aware of what the students' needs are earlier in the year," said Blamey, who now teaches second grade.

Of course, retention has its foes. There's as much research showing that making a child repeat a grade has negative impacts as there is work supporting the practice.

Florida's alternatives for promotion eliminate some of the misgivings, though, said Westchase Elementary teacher April McElroy, who has taught third grade for 15 years.

Those who deserve to go to fourth grade can show it in other ways, she said, while those who need more help can get it.

"If documentation shows they need to be held back, then, yes, they need to be held back," she said.

Want to learn more? Read the entire report at www.oppaga.state.fl.us/reports/educ/r06-66s.html.

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Don't start making vacation plans based on early versions of the school district's 2007-08 academic calendar. The committee that agreed to a religion-neutral calendar in September is expected to reconvene soon, and the second semester in particular will be reopened for debate.

One discussion will center on spring break. But another, more controversial topic is likely to rear up again - Good Friday.

When the committee last met, it ruled out Good Friday as a day off because it falls within the FCAT testing period. That satisfied representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities, who as a result did not press for their holidays as days off.

The Department of Education threw a changeup this month. In a memo to superintendents, Deputy Commissioner Hanna Skandera said districts could extend the testing period a day to accommodate for Good Friday.

Tampa's weekly Jewish newspaper recently had two front page articles fretting that this door might reopen.

"If you're going to start giving Good Friday off and the major holidays of other religions, the Jewish community wants its holidays off," said Jon Ellis, who represents the Tampa JCC/Federation on the committee.

Calendar committee chairwoman Debi Veranth stressed that the School Board has the final word. But she could not rule out reconsideration by the committee, if it thinks that the day will be poorly attended.

"If we're going to go through step by step again, yeah, at some point we're going to hit Good Friday," Veranth said.

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Families interested in school choice options should not look for increased curriculum choices in Town 'N Country schools when the first application period begins Dec. 1.

The idea of putting magnet programs into Town & Country Elementary and Webb Middle is off the table.

After a detailed review of factors such as busing and demographics, the curriculum and magnet departments decided to abandon the idea for now, said School Board member Susan Valdes, who represents the area.

Valdes said she nonetheless plans to continue to press for special programs involving language education for the region:

"We are the eighth-largest district in the country. We should be models of a lot of things, and not just the things that the state of Florida wants to use Hillsborough County for."

Have opinions about this column, or ideas for future ones? Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5304.