County students shine on FCAT
By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2001
Pinellas tied three other districts for best in the state in 10th-grade writing, though the county's average was the same score as last year. The county performed better than the state average at all grade levels and in all subjects except fifth-grade math, which is the only area where the district's scores dropped.
The release of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores in reading, writing and math on Tuesday gave educators a test of their own that involved deciphering data, comparing 2000 and 2001 numbers and trying to predict how the results might translate into the state's A through F school accountability grades. Those aren't expected to be released for three weeks.
As always, educators complained that the scores compare one group of students from this year to another group from last year, rather than tracking the progress of students from year to year.
"I don't know that you can tell too much looking at two different groups," said Alex Epanchin, the district's director of testing.
One thing is clear in Pinellas -- once again, no school will get an F.
Predicting other grades is a little dicey because the scores reported Tuesday include students whose performance does not get counted in the grades, such as special-education students and those with limited English skills. Also, other factors, such as how many students took the tests, are counted in the grades -- but those were not released this week.
To get a D, a school must fail to meet state standards in either writing, reading or math. All 16 Pinellas high schools exceeded state standards -- which means Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg likely has escaped being the county's only D high school two years in a row.
"Of course, I reserve my elation until the composite scores come," said principal Jeffrey Haynes, pointing out a five-point jump in reading and a nine-point jump in math. "Teachers are very competitive by nature. No one liked to have the D grade."
Twenty-three elementary schools and one middle school -- Meadowlawn -- appear to be dangerously close to scoring D's. But predicting is not scientific: last year, 27 schools appeared close to getting D's based on preliminary test scores, but only five actually got that mark.
Other than Dixie Hollins High, the other four D schools posted some impressive gains -- such as Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg, which soared 32 points in reading.
Carlyn Hallin's school, Lealman Avenue Elementary, has been a D two years in a row. This year, her students posted a leap in reading and a small gain in writing, meeting state standards in both. But math could still sink the school where she is principal.
The state requires 60 percent of students to hit a certain level -- and only 59 percent did. She's crossing her fingers that when the state manipulates the numbers, Lealman will be able to escape the stigma of a D.
"We've never felt like we were doing a D job," Hallin said. "I think the important thing is for the teachers to have some freedom to feel like they don't have to think about that test every day, every minute."
John Nicely, principal of Tarpon Springs High School, didn't know his school had jumped 12 points in reading and nine points in math until a reporter called. He was pleased to hear that all Pinellas high schools improved in both reading and math.
At his school, he credited a booster math class for struggling students, courses on test-taking and refocusing math classes to intensely teach 20 concepts rather than 60.
"I think the county is really working on things, trying to get teachers to look at how students are learning," Nicely said.
But the happiness was tempered by the reality of Florida's testing system: Improved scores from one year to the other don't mean the students are improving -- it just means one group of students outperformed a different group.
Likewise, a drop doesn't mean a school is suddenly lousy.
Pinellas Park Middle School principal Dennis Duda said "Wow!" when he heard that his eighth-graders posted a 28-point gain in reading, a 20-point gain in math and a slight gain in writing.
He is proud of numerous improvements teachers have made: using monthly staff meetings for training, congratulating student success during morning announcements, offering morning tutoring and scheduling 15 minutes of silent reading each day. Before tests, the school served breakfast and handed out pencils with a school slogan -- "Up with achievement" -- written in the school colors, hunter green and white.
But he also pointed out that this year's students are different from last year's -- and that parents would learn more about a school by tracking their child's progress.
"I think what every parent needs to look at is how their son or daughter has improved from year to year," Duda said. "If that's what we're doing for every student, then we're an A school in my opinion."
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