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    Scores rise in two of the three R's

    Florida's students score higher in reading and math on the FCAT. Writing holds steady. Overall scores are up in the bay area.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2001


    Florida's annual evaluation of its public schools got started Tuesday with the release of FCAT scores, and the news was good.

    Reading scores are up. Math scores are up. Writing scores are holding steady.

    School grades have not yet been released; that's expected in three weeks. But the widespread improvement in test scores is sure to result in more A's and B's and fewer D's and F's.

    "These scores are a tribute to all of Florida's public school teachers," said Florida Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, speaking at a news conference in Tallahassee.

    Gov. Jeb Bush also applauded the scores.

    "This is only the latest evidence that real improvement in student learning can be achieved and that more students are gaining the reading, writing and math skills they will need to succeed," Bush said.

    Teachers ought to celebrate while they can.

    Next year, the rules change. Soon after that, the standards get tougher.

    Starting next school year, Florida will measure actual student progress. The coming "value-added assessment" system will enable the state to stop comparing this year's fourth-graders against last year's -- a practice that has long frustrated educators.

    But for now, those comparisons are all we have. And countless educators were happy to play along. The Florida Department of Education Web site was an Internet traffic jam Tuesday as educators tried to log on and see how their kids did.

    Pinellas County's 10th-graders led the state in writing scores. Hillsborough County's eighth-graders led the state in writing. Overall scores in the Tampa Bay area were up.

    "We made some pretty dramatic improvement in some areas," said Pasco County Superintendent John Long, whose 10th-graders improved by 13 points in math. As soon as he said that, Long caught himself and explained that the improvement only means that this year's 10th-graders scored higher than a completely different group of 10th-graders last year.

    "I can't wait til we start looking at gain scores" -- looking at actual progress over time, Long said. "Any teacher will tell you this year's class is different from last year's, so the comparison doesn't really make sense."

    Regardless of whether the comparisons make sense, at some schools the improvement in Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores was celebrated.

    "The entire school has been going crazy," said Brenda Dawson, principal at Shadowlawn Elementary, a school with a largely Haitian population in Miami-Dade County. The school got an F last year and would be eligible for vouchers this year if it gets a second F. That isn't likely now. Though the state has not analyzed the scores yet, Shadowlawn's fourth-graders appear to have aced the writing test, with 95 percent of them scoring a 3 or above. They needed 50 percent to score a 3 or above.

    Of the four schools that got F grades last school year, each of them appears to have performed its way off the failing schools list. That includes two Miami-Dade schools, one in Putnam County, and Annie Morgan Elementary in Duval County.

    "I just praise the Lord because I know we owe it all to him -- and a lot of hard work," said Deloris Milton, principal at Morgan Elementary, where 80 percent of the fourth-graders appear to have gotten a score of 3 or above.

    The state did not announce Tuesday whether any schools would become eligible for vouchers based on this year's test scores. It is risky to try to extrapolate school grades from the test scores released Tuesday. But it appears the voucher program for failing schools is not going to expand.

    Of the four F-rated schools last year, and the 78 the previous year, a preliminary analysis shows that each of them appears to have earned a writing score high enough to meet the state standard.

    Only two schools in the state have become eligible for vouchers, and that was in 1999. Two Pensacola schools were dubbed failing schools for two years, and their students became eligible for private school vouchers. Though those two schools -- A.A. Dixon Elementary and the Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy -- avoided F grades last year, 52 of their students still receive vouchers and remain in private schools.

    To get an F, the school would have to fail to meet the state standard on reading, writing and math. Any school that gets an F for two out of four years would be eligible for private school vouchers.

    This year the state made a small change that may have had a small effect on scores.

    It comes after a small change last year when the scores of mobile students were not included in schools' grade calculations. It bumped a few schools to higher grades.

    Under the slight change this year, scores include only the multiple choice parts of the reading and math tests. The "performance items" -- questions that require a written answer or a hand-drawn graph -- are not included in the scores, nor will they count toward school grades. In an effort get test scores back in time, the state agreed to accept the results for those items later in the summer.

    What effect does leaving out those items have on scores?

    Crist said it was not expected to make much of a difference.

    But a study done for the Department of Education concluded that the state could expect to see higher scores when the performance items are removed.

    The removal of the performance items would affect only reading and math scores, and sure enough, reading and math scores statewide showed improvement, while writing scores were largely unchanged. The study projected gains in reading and in 10th-grade math. The state saw overall improvement in reading in grades four, eight and 10, and big improvement in 10th-grade math.

    However, DOE spokeswoman JoAnn Carrin said the improvements this year were consistent with improvements last year -- evidence of better academic performance, not an artificial bump due to the removal of performance items. The big jump in 10th-grade scores, she said, could be attributable to the fact that, for the first time, 10th-graders must pass the test to graduate.

    Individual student scores are expected to arrive in school districts this week. Parents should receive a copy of their child's scores in the next few weeks before school lets out.

    map
    Click for larger chart

    (Find your district or school scores on the Internet at www.myflorida.com. Under Quick Topics, click on 2001 FCAT Scores.)

    - Staff writer Diane Rado contributed to this report.

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