Board scraps test rule

No longer will the FCAT keep otherwise qualified seniors from joining the grad walk.

Published May 2, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - Forget the FCAT.

It's no longer needed to participate in Pasco County's high school graduation ceremonies.

Just one day before the 12th-grade test results were to be announced, the Pasco School Board changed its decade-old policy that forced seniors to have completed all the state graduation requirements if they wanted to walk across the stage in cap and gown.

Now, a grade point average of 2.0 or better and 24 credits will suffice. The district had been one of the few in Florida to have the stricter policy, and last year it affected 85 students.

"I set strong boundaries with my kids, but in some cases we need to look at the big picture, " vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said, supporting the change Tuesday.

That big picture, she said, was trying to encourage more students to stay in school and get their education. She figured the possibility of walking at graduation might prove an incentive to keep trying.

Only board member Allen Altman voted against the policy revision. He argued that the number of affected students was too small, and that they have several ways to meet the state graduation testing standard. Perhaps the state rules should change, Altman said, but they exist for a reason.

"This is the most agonizing and gut-wrenching decision I have had to go through" while on the board, Altman said. "There is no right answer. ... No matter what decision the board makes today, there will be a perceived disservice to some group of students."

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff recommended the change after several committee meetings and reviews by a variety of educators, including the high school principals and guidance counselors. One of the big issues, Fiorentino explained, was that the seniors might have done well on a national exam against students across the country, but fared poorly on the Sunshine State Standards.

That disconnect has proved vexing for some seniors who argued they were achieving above average but could not prove it on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Fiorentino also noted that several high school students had told her they thought the district rule on graduation participation was not fair.

Parents came out Tuesday to take both sides of the issue.

"To walk across that stage is a right that you earn. It's not a rite of passage, " said Dale Maggard, chairman of the Pasco High school advisory council. "It's not given by tenure just because you've been in school for 12 years."

Gary Worthley of Land O'Lakes agreed.

"This is utter madness, as it flies against what education is supposed to be, " Worthley said of the proposal. "People need to know that there are consequences for failing. This is the Pasco County School Board and not the Pasco County feel-good society."

Stacy Romano, whose son is a senior at Mitchell High, took the other side. She said her son has tried every way to pass the FCAT math section or an alternative, and was losing self-esteem. Taking away graduation made it even worse, Romano said.

"Please consider there are students who are good students who are really trying, " she said. "They're still going to walk away without a diploma. But please let them walk away with at least the dignity. Give them the chance to be a part of something, of completing 13 years of school."

Chairwoman Marge Whaley said the time was right to make this happen. She noted that even Gov. Charlie Crist has acknowledged the disconnect between the students' performance on the state vs. national standards, but that fixing the state rule would be hard to come by.

The least the county could do is make things right locally, Whaley said.

Board member Cathi Martin was absent.

In other business, the board approved a guaranteed maximum price of $38.5-million for a new middle school to be built in Shady Hills. The price per square foot is about $206, up from $202.77 for the same school now rising in Land O'Lakes Rushe Middle. In 2002, the district paid $121.69 per square foot when it built Chasco Elementary School.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, read the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.