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Parents keep kids home to avoid FCAT

Other students across the state this week in grades 3-10 have been taking the reading and math sections. Testing ends Monday.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


SPRING HILL -- Griping about the FCAT has, in recent years, become an art form. But there has been little action behind the grousing.

Until now.

At least two families with children in the Hernando County schools have been keeping their children home this week so their kids won't have to take the dreaded test.

At J.D. Floyd Elementary, Kathryn and Daniel Foster have kept home their son James, a fourth-grader. They say the school has been so focused on preparing James for the FCAT it has neglected his need for remedial help in reading.

Far from being on vacation, though, James has been seeing a private tutor this week for three hours of personal instruction.

"He's not enjoying this at all," Mrs. Foster said.

At Spring Hill Elementary, Anna Calleri has kept her fifth-grade granddaughter out of school this week because she says the girl isn't ready for the test and has been anxious about it.

"I think the test was just to bat them over the head so they can fail again," Calleri said. "You can't do this to people."

Florida law says participation in the state's testing program -- the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT -- is "mandatory for all students." But that refers only to students who show up for school.

The writing portion of the FCAT was given last month to grades 4, 8 and 10.

This week, students across Florida in grades 3-10 have been taking the reading and math sections. Testing concludes Monday with the second and final day of make-up exams.

As if they were waiting out a storm, both the Fosters and the Calleris say their kids will stay out of school until the FCAT passes them by.

For schools, test-day absentees are a serious concern.

Results from the tests are used to award A to F letter grades to schools. Schools that get A's are showered with incentive money. Schools that get F grades twice in four years can lose money: Their students' families can use state-funded vouchers to pay for private school.

To avoid an F, at least 90 percent of each school's eligible students must be tested. To get an A, at least 95 percent must be tested.

In elementary schools, only the fourth- and fifth-grade scores are used to calculate the school's letter grades. A swing of fewer than 15 absent students could mean a vital 5 percent difference.

In recent years, attendance hasn't been a problem. Figures from this week's testing weren't available Wednesday.

Complaints that schools have made the FCAT the center of their universe -- to the exclusion of many other subjects and activities -- are nothing new. Many veteran teachers and school administrators and some parents have expressed the same concerns.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has made this system of school accountability a centerpiece of his administration, and the Department of Education have defended the tests. They say the FCAT measures the state's education standards. And if teachers are focused on the tests, they are focused on the state's standards.

Even some educators who aren't big fans of the governor's grade book say FCAT results offer useful clues about areas in which students struggle.

Last year, J.D. Floyd was one of four schools in Hernando County that earned an A. For its achievement, the school received $87,000.

Spring Hill Elementary principal John DiRienzo could not be reached Wednesday.

The principal at J.D. Floyd, Janet Yungmann-Barkalow, admits she isn't a fan of the school grades. Like many other educators, she thinks it fails to take into account the differences in children and their communities, as well as the interest level of parents.

But she says there's valuable information to be gleaned from a child's individual performance on the FCAT -- information that can help teachers help students.

Going into this week's exams, she said it had not occurred to her that a handful of parents purposely keeping their kids home could hurt Floyd's chances of getting an A. It seems unlikely because fourth-grade attendance last month approached 99 percent for the writing test.

"If a lot of families did this, it could make a difference," she said. So far, there have been no widespread boycotts in the county or around the state.

About the only students who have no choice but to come to school and take the FCAT are high school students who want to graduate with a regular diploma. A passing grade on the 10th-grade FCAT exam is now a graduation requirement.

Fourth-graders who score poorly on the exam may be prevented from moving up to fifth grade if they have a history of classroom struggles. But the test isn't mandatory. Fourth-graders who miss the test can still be promoted if they have good grades in class.

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