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State test scores are likely to be tardy

As schools close for summer, some will make decisions on promoting students without crucial data on their performance.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000

This time last year Florida educators were up to their ears in test scores: Florida Writes and FCAT. They were scrambling to figure out which A-through-F grade their school might get.

This year, with the end of school just around the corner, educators are waiting. And getting very antsy.

Scores from the state's all-important Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for reading, writing and math are not expected for another two weeks. In some school districts that's after school lets out. June 2 is the target date for results, but no one can promise the scores will be ready then.

That means school districts will have to make promotion and retention decisions without a key piece of information. Some are considering plans to spend thousands of dollars mailing test results home to students during the summer.

"This is definitely the fly in the accountability ointment," said Mark Brunner, coordinator of elementary education for Citrus County schools.

The delay is particularly inconvenient for districts such as Citrus and Hillsborough, where the school year ends before the test scores are expected back. In Citrus County, the school year ends May 31. In Hillsborough, it's May 24.

"I really regret that they won't be there to get the results," said Joyce Haines, general director of elementary education for the Hillsborough County schools. "They've worked so hard. And they're going to leave for the summer not knowing."

Other west-central Florida school districts will be cutting it close. Hernando County students get out June 2. In Pasco County, the last day of school is June 6; in Pinellas, it's June 7.

"We're not quite pulling our hair out because our schedule gives us a little time," said Judith Westfall, associate superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction for the Pinellas County schools. "But we're not going to be happy if the scores are even later."

* * *

The delay was set in motion last summer before the testing process even got started.

The state had awarded the contract for administering and grading the FCAT tests to Harcourt Brace. It was the same company that won the $11.3-million contract to help develop new portions of the test.

Then a competitor, National Computer Systems out of Iowa City, challenged the contract award and took its case to a hearing officer. The entire testing process was put on hold.

"That put us back as far as administering the test to the students," said JoAnn Carrin, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education. "It takes 90 days (to score the tests) so if the students take the test late, the results are going to be late."

(The scoring of the test takes that long because the FCAT is not strictly a multiple-choice exam that can be scored by a computer. The writing portion of the test, for instance, must be read and scored by two trained readers.)

In the end, National Computer Systems prevailed with its challenge and won the $69-million, three-year contract. That was in late July. The state testing effort was about to gear up, already several weeks behind schedule.

Last year students started taking the FCAT on Feb. 1. This year, they started Feb. 15. Originally, the contract called for results to be delivered by May 10. After the delays with the contract, the delivery date was shifted to June 2.

* * *

This is the time of year when teachers and principals make some of their toughest decisions: which students will be promoted to the next grade.

State lawmakers, taking a lead from Gov. Jeb Bush's "no social promotion" stance, want to ensure that students are not promoted without being ready -- especially if they are behind in reading.

That's why they wrote a law saying that fourth-graders who fail the reading portion of the FCAT can't be promoted to the next grade. But they left an out; the law also says: "The local school board may exempt a student from mandatory retention for good cause."

Months ago, educators realized that if they didn't have FCAT scores back in time, they would be hard pressed to comply with the state law. Some school districts -- Hernando County included -- have been wringing their hands over the late scores, given the state mandate tying fourth-grade promotion to reading scores.

Officials at the Florida Department of Education have discouraged educators from making promotion and retention decisions based on FCAT alone. They said look at other factors, such as classroom work, other tests and a teacher's judgment. Those would qualify as the "good cause" that allows a district to exempt a student from mandatory retention.

"I think the FCAT scores are just going to reinforce what we already know about kids," said John Hilderbrand, testing director for the Hillsborough County schools. "I would be surprised if the teachers are surprised by the FCAT scores. The teachers know if their kids are ready."

This year's delay in test scores also sheds light on the balance that state testing officials try to achieve each year. When should the tests be given?

The state cannot give the tests too late, because schools need the results before school lets out. They help educators decide which students need summer school and which academic areas the school needs to work on.

But the state can't give the test too early because students need a chance to learn the material.

"As it is, we're already putting so much of the curriculum at the front end" to prepare for FCAT, said Sandy Ramos, assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction for Pasco County schools. "I know we're talking about the scores being late, but I don't want to see it much earlier."

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