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Senator warns of student-performance gap

One assessment puts 74 precent of Florida fourth-graders "below proficient'' in reading and 79 percent of fifth-graders below the math standard.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- State Sen. Don Sullivan of Pinellas can't believe it when people complain about Florida's student testing program. While many are quick to criticize the annual A-to-F grades given schools, he says, most parents don't realize how few of their children measure up to national standards.

"I think they would be shocked," said Sullivan, a Largo Republican who heads the Senate's education budget committee.

To make his point, Sullivan asked state testing officials to estimate how Florida students would have scored on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card," based on scores from the state's own high-stakes test, the FCAT.

The national assessment is a federal testing program begun in 1969 that tests samples of students in alternating years.

The results are grim.

Based on 1999 FCAT results, 74 percent of Florida fourth-graders would be considered "below proficient" in reading on the national test. Even more fifth-graders -- 79 percent -- would fall short of that mark in math.

Among eighth-graders, only 26 percent would be considered proficient in reading and 21 percent in math.

By "proficient," the national test means "solid academic performance" by students who have demonstrated "competency over challenging subject matter." Students who score below proficient have shown only "partial mastery" of what they should know at their grade level.

The low scores may surprise parents, who don't receive their children's FCAT scores with such simple labels. Instead, they get three-digit numbers that correspond to five achievement levels.

But the results aren't new to state leaders who pay attention to the big picture. Last summer, the state's release of the most recent FCAT scores showed the small portion of students who scored at the two highest levels.

The way state testing officials figure it, those two levels roughly correspond to the national test's two highest levels: "proficient" and "advanced."

By calling attention to how few Florida students fall into those categories, Sullivan said, he wants to send a message to critics who say the state is testing too much or is making the FCAT too difficult.

"The FCAT has been telling us we're not doing well. This is telling us the FCAT is not lying," Sullivan said.

Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union, had not seen Sullivan's figures and declined to comment.

The union is among the FCAT's most vocal critics, primarily because the test doesn't account for student progress over time and provides only a "snapshot" of performance on a given day. The state is increasing the number of students tested each year so that such comparisons eventually can be made.

Recent coverage

Governor wants clarity in FCAT grades scale (December 8, 2000)

Bay area test scores better than average (November 11, 2001)

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