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    Diploma to hinge on FCAT success

    Tenth-graders will have several chances to pass both the essay and multiple choice portions of the standardized test.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


    Facing public pressure to make a decision and stick with it, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist has decided to give Florida's 10th-graders added incentive to do well on essay-style questions on the FCAT test:

    Their diplomas are at stake.

    Tenth-graders will have to pass the entire Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test -- both multiple choice and essay-style items -- in order to graduate with a standard diploma. They will have several chances to pass before the end of their senior year.

    Crist's announcement Tuesday changes the testing landscape yet again, at a time when students in several districts already are taking the test.

    Contrary to what was expected, the change is not a complete reversal of the state's decision to eliminate the extended-answer items from accountability.

    Those items still don't affect a school's A-through-F grade, nor does it affect students' individual scores.

    But this puts the essay-type questions back in the mix so students know those questions count for something.

    "It's not utopia; I wish it were more," Crist said. "It's the most we could do for this year. This encourages students to take the performance items very seriously."

    Due to a compromise crafted by Crist's predecessor, the extended answer items were not going to count because they couldn't be scored and returned in time.

    Instead, the scores and school grades would be based solely on the multiple choice items, which are easier to score and return. The other, more lengthy, essay-style items, will be returned later in the summer.

    Educators didn't like that arrangement, and neither did Crist.

    Most school districts now have several days to get the word out to students to take the performance items seriously. Testing starts next week for most districts. But Crist's announcement came a little late for students in several school districts -- including Citrus and Hillsborough -- who already were taking the test.

    Educators advised students to just do their best and ignore the mixed signals out of Tallahassee.

    In Citrus County, 10th-graders started taking the FCAT on Monday. Before the test started, students were told that everything counted.

    "We had a memo that said "You need to do your best on everything;' I had all my test instructors read that to the students," said Gayle Merritt, assistant principal at Lecanto High School. "We told them, "I don't care what you've been hearing, this is what you need to do.' "

    The performance items differ from multiple choice in that they require students to provide their own answer in a written response. Classroom instruction has changed as teachers have emphasized the kinds of skills necessary to work through the more complex performance items.

    Crist had hoped to make those items count more, but at this late hour apparently it was impossible to make a major change.

    "We're going to do everything we can to make this work," said Steven Uhlfelder, the attorney who represents NCS Pearson, the company that handles the test scoring for Florida. "The commissioner feels very strongly about this."

    Uhlfelder pointed out that the task is not as simple as it might seem. Based on the earlier agreement, the performance items and the multiple choice items were separated.

    Now, they will have to be put together for the scoring of the 10th-grade tests -- an additional step in an already tight process.

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