Remedial lessons put to the test
By ROBERT KING
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001
After dipping their toes in it last month, thousands of Hernando County students will dive headlong this week into that swirling abyss of achievement exams known as the FCAT.
Many of them -- 10 percent or more by some estimates -- will confront the test with the skills they learned this year in one of the school district's countless remediation programs.
At Parrott Middle School, the entire school day has been shifted so students who struggle can be "double-dipped" in the FCAT-tested areas of reading, writing and math. In other words, kids struggling in math have schedules loaded with two math classes instead of one.
At West Hernando Middle, classes like physical education, drafting or computers are routinely suspended for hapless young scholars who cannot seem to catch up in core subjects like math and reading. Instead of stretching their legs in the gym, the kids are poring over fractions.
Elementary schools across the county devote "extra time" after school or even on Saturdays to help children who have fallen behind to pick up the pace.
In this vein, the School Board gives the county's high schools one teacher who does nothing but work with students who have gotten behind. Central and Springstead have gone a step further, shifting their staffs so they could have two remediation teachers.
This year alone, Superintendent John Sanders says, the district will spend $4.5-million on that broad category known as remediation.
That means more than 5 percent of the school district's annual budget goes to reteaching items students didn't get the first time around.
Remediation is nothing new. Educators say it's been going on as long as there have been students and schools.
Adults remember it happening when a teacher pulled them aside a few minutes each day to help them work through a challenging subject. They might recall it happening when their entire class bombed a section of an exam only to have the teacher reteach the lesson.
But, at least in Florida, remediation has become serious business.
For one thing, a state law enacted a few years ago requires school districts to offer remedial help to students who score low on achievement tests. For another, the state's accountability system now assigns "A" through "F" letter grades to schools based on scores from the FCAT, formally known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
As they've grown to understand the full impact of the state's accountability system -- with five- and six-figure checks being awarded to high-performing schools and threats of private-school vouchers for students at low-performing schools -- the emphasis on remediation has increased.
But is the burgeoning remediation industry being driven by the threat of a bad school grade or by the school system's altruistic concern for the child's performance?
Educators in Hernando County say children are still the focus. But they acknowledge that both goals -- helping students and making a good show on the tests -- go hand in hand.
"I think FCAT has required us to be more focused. There is a body of standards with benchmarks for each of those subjects. That in itself has given us a focus on what the state requires us educators to teach," said Parrott Middle School principal Marvin Gordon.
"It's like a road map to what students should know."
Indeed, the FCAT does more than provide the basis for the controversial school grades. Test results provide teachers and principals with insight into each child's strengths and weaknesses.
When the results come back, schools not only learn if they qualify for an A grade and thousands of dollars in incentive cash. They also see if a child's reading problems are due to trouble decoding words or understanding their meanings.
"Where they were weak, that's where we remediate," said Charles Casciotta, the district's secondary curriculum specialist.
Last month, students in grades 4, 8 and 10 were tested in writing. This week, beginning today, students in grades 3-10 will be tested in reading and math.
Ken Pritz, the principal at West Hernando Middle School, said he understands the importance of the test scores. But he said incentive money and the publicity from the school grades do not drive the system.
"My philosophy is we help every kid," Pritz said. "You are working with them because they need the help. Because they need to learn to read."
In a larger sense, the very existence of a large-scale remediation system is an acknowledgement by the school system that not everyone learned everything they were supposed to the first time through.
Middle schools and high schools now train social studies, science and math teachers on how to coach students in reading. It isn't a natural part of their job description as a teacher of older children. But they have to do it if the kids are going to learn anything in their specialty area.
High schools reteach math that kids are supposed to know in middle school. Middle schools do the same for students who didn't pick up what they needed in elementary school.
Remediation has become as much a part of the school day as is calling the roll in the morning and riding the bus home in the afternoon.
Educators say the system has evolved this way in response to the students themselves.
Some arrive for the first day of kindergarten reading and writing. Others show up having never had a book read to them. Even if their preschool preparations are equal, educators say, no two are alike. No two learn the same way.
"That's never going to change," Casciotta said.
Once the results come back from this week's round of FCAT tests, the process will begin again: Weak areas in a student's performance this week will determine where they need remediation next year.
"You are always probably going to have some kids that are struggling. I think that's probably just a fact of life," said Paul Tune, the district's reading specialist. "We all have our limitations."
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