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Schools

FCAT policy isn't so tough

The district's reading assessments keep fifth-, eighth-graders from being held back.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published June 13, 2007


Dorie Sundholm teaches her fourth-grade class at Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary School in Tarpon Springs. The school is one of seven public schools, elementary through high school, in Florida to be designated a "2006 No Child Left Behind - Blue Ribbon School."
photo
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
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On paper, it looked like a scary proposition.

Beginning with the 2006-07 school year, Pinellas fifth- and eighth-graders who scored at the lowest level on the FCAT would be held back if they could not show in another way that they could read.

Some feared the new policy, which had its roots in a statewide effort to end social promotion, would force thousands of children to repeat a grade.

That won't be the case.

In fact, it appears fewer Pinellas fifth- and eighth-graders have been retained this year, despite the get-tough policy aimed at preventing struggling students from entering middle and high schools.

Of the approximately 1,000 fifth-graders who scored at the lowest level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this year, only about 30 will be held back, district officials estimate. And of the more than 1,600 eighth-graders who scored at Level 1, they say only about 125 will repeat the grade.

That's because most of them scored at least 60 percent on at least one of 10 district reading assessments, thus meeting the policy's directive that they show "adequate reading ability" in a way besides the FCAT, said Harry Brown, deputy superintendent for curriculum and operations.

"Some people would look at that and call it social promotion," Brown said.

"We don't call it social promotion at all. We think this is actually a great success story."

Flexibility assists students

Students who came into fifth and eighth grades with low reading scores were given intensive reading help this past year, Brown said. In some cases, students who began the year at the lowest level raised their scores even though they scored at Level 1 again this year, making them eligible for promotion anyway.

Such flexibility is necessary, Brown said. Rather than relying on the FCAT alone to determine whether a student can read and move on, making district assessments part of the equation gives teachers a chance to weigh in on a student's performance. It also encourages the district to move away from the "assembly line mentality" of using the same formula to educate all children, Brown said.

School Board member Jane Gallucci said she was delighted that so few children will be held back.

"I believe the programs we've put in place are starting to pay off," she said. "We're focusing on reading programs that really work for kids."

School Board member Linda Lerner said she would prefer to see even fewer children held back.

"You can get remedial help even if you are passed on to the next grade," she said. "I think the remedial help is the issue."

Standards called too low

But at least one School Board member wonders whether the new policy's standards are too low.

"I would like nothing more than to find out that 92 percent of those eighth-graders are prepared to go on to high school," said Nancy Bostock. "But I would worry that's not the case."

By state law, only third-graders who score at Level 1 on the reading FCAT are at risk of retention.

After the state Board of Education proposed a plan to end social promotion at all grade levels two years ago, many school districts, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, began exploring ways to stanch the flow of children moving on before they are ready.

Pinellas board members voted down an early draft of a policy to end social promotion for fifth- and eighth-graders in October 2005 because they believed it relied too heavily on the FCAT. They approved an amended version in May 2006 that promoted students who could meet expectations on other district assessments or could show two years of growth on the reading FCAT.

Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of elementary schools, said she feels "very comfortable" about the number of fifth-graders who will be promoted, based on the district's assessments.

"Just because they're at Level 1 on the FCAT doesn't mean they need to spend another year in fifth grade," Thomas said. "Some of them missed being a Level 2 by only one point."

Revisiting retention's value

Another issue to consider, Thomas said, is that many Level 1 students have been retained twice.

"Obviously, retention doesn't appear to be the answer," she said.

Retention has been a controversial subject for years. Some studies have found that dropout rates are higher for students who have repeated a grade. But some educators say that continuing to promote students before they have the necessary educational skills only puts them at a much greater disadvantage than being older than their peers.

Cathy Fleeger, Pinellas' assistant superintendent in charge of high schools, believes the school district's policy walks the fine line between being too lenient and too strict, despite the fact that so few Level 1 eighth-graders will be held back this school year.

"It's not that we put a policy in place to get tough and now we're not doing it," Fleeger said.

"What we said was, 'We're putting a policy in place and you all better rise to the occasion. If you don't, there will be consequences.'"

Borderline eighth-graders who were promoted will be required to take a reading course as ninth-graders, said Brown, the deputy superintendent. The district will use student reading scores to determine the level of intensity they will need to catch up.

But whether children who are chronically behind can catch up while moving to the next grade is debatable, Bostock said, especially when it involves the student moving to high school from middle school.

"We are the gatekeepers," she said. "We have to make sure we're doing what's best for each of these kids.

"Based on these numbers, I'm not sure we're doing that."

Retention in Pinellas fifth and eighth grades
While roughly the same number of Pinellas fifth- and eighth-graders have tested at the lowest level on the reading FCAT for the past three years, the district has held back fewer students each year.

Fifth grade

2005 2006 2007
FCAT Level 1 1,211 1,225 1,000
Retained 441 45 30*
Eighth grade 2005 2006 2007
FCAT Level 1 2,101 2,035 1,634
Retained 570 176 125*

*Approximate numbers based on early data
Source: Florida Department of Education, Pinellas County School District

How difficult is the FCAT?
This sample question is from the reading portion of the eighth-grade FCAT. To be rated Level 1, the lowest category, a student would have to miss about half of the questions like these.

His best friend through all that time had been his horse, a strong, noble steed that had borne him safely through many a danger.

What is the meaning of the word borne?

A. dragged B. carried C. thrown D. pushed

(correct answer is B)

[Last modified June 13, 2007, 07:29:42]


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