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    Scores foretell diploma trouble

    FCAT reading results suggest more than 45,000 Florida sophomores could be in danger of not graduating.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2001


    One of every three 10th-graders in Florida could have trouble getting a diploma two years from now because of their poor performance on the FCAT -- the test they now must pass to graduate.

    This year's 10th-graders are the first group that must pass the rigorous Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test -- not the old minimum-skills High School Competency Test -- to get their diplomas.

    The state has not formally set passing scores for the graduation test yet. But under the state's recommended cut score, more than 45,000 of the state's sophomores fell short on the reading portion of the test on their first try. At some Tampa Bay area high schools the failure rate was 40 percent or higher. They will have five more chances to pass.

    "If they set the passing score at an appropriate level, it will be more difficult," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. "It is supposed to be more difficult than the HSCT. It ought to be tough."

    The graduation requirement is expected to take Florida's experiment with high-stakes testing to a new level -- now that diplomas are at stake. And judging by what has happened in some states, Florida could be in for some education soul searching.

    In some states, educators and lawmakers have gotten downright jittery as deadlines for the graduation requirements approached. Both North Carolina and Alaska postponed their graduation-test requirements. California tinkered with its test, eliminating some of the tougher questions, and Arizona is rethinking its math requirement in light of an embarrassing failure rate.

    "Not all states are having problems, but the overall theme is that you can expect a high failure rate," said Kathy Christie, director of the information clearinghouse at the Education Commission of States. "And that scares people."

    But Florida is on schedule. The score needed to pass the test is to be set in August. And this year's 10th-graders are expected to be held to a tough standard.

    * * *

    Dixie Hollins assistant principal Steven Knellinger has studied the numbers, and doesn't like what he sees.

    Using the state's recommended cut score, roughly 40 percent of the 10th-graders at his Pinellas County school fell short on the reading portion of the FCAT. That's 120 kids out of a class of 300 that need remedial work to have a chance at passing on one of the five tries they have left.

    "That's the first concern right now; we're looking at a lot of remediation classes," Knellinger said.

    Knellinger's job is complicated by the fact that the official notification of who passed and who failed won't come until August. By then students will already have their 11th-grade schedules set.

    "They're going to have to figure out which class they're going to drop to take a remedial course," Knellinger said.

    Some of the numbers might improve.

    The FCAT numbers now available will be revised somewhat. For one thing, they include scores for all students, including some special education students who are not seeking a standard diploma. Once those students' scores are taken out, the percentage of students who are outside looking in might improve slightly. And the scores only include the multiple choice items on the FCAT, not the extended-answer items. Those "performance items" will be added to the mix by the time 10th-graders learn whether they passed or failed.

    (It is unclear how 10th-graders fared on the math portion of FCAT in terms of the recommended graduation cut score. It is possible to calculate the possible passing rate for reading because the recommended cut score corresponds to the cutoff point for one of the FCAT achievement levels.)

    But the scores are not expected to change much. And that is what most educators expected -- that a tougher test would mean a higher failure rate.

    "I think we're going to see exactly what we saw with FCAT before: The scores weren't good, then everybody got more serious about it," said Judith Westfall, associate superintendent in charge of curriculum for the Pinellas County schools.

    Brogan agreed. He said the initial passing rates should be lower than we've come to expect with HSCT. But in the next few years, they should improve -- just as FCAT scores have. The reason, Brogan said, is that when you set the bar higher, students struggle and then rise to the challenge.

    The guiding principle behind Florida's school reform efforts was the belief that the state should make it clear what students should know (standards) and should measure to see if they knew those things (FCAT).

    The movement grew out of frustration among educators and business people that some youngsters got a Florida diploma despite their inability to read, write or compute.

    The High School Competency Test was put in place to ensure that kids could master some basic skills before graduation. But that was a true minimum skills test.

    "Have you seen the old HSCT?" said Christie, with the Denver-based Education Commission of States. "It was pretty easy; minimum skills."

    In 1998, only 19 percent of the state's 10th-graders failed the reading portion of the HSCT on the first try. Twenty-three percent failed the math portion.

    In 2000, the reading scores were down; 25 percent failed the reading section on the first try. Twenty-four percent failed the math portion.

    The FCAT was designed to be tougher, and now, as planned, it is the gate standing between students and a standard diploma.

    The challenge for Florida and other states is where to set the bar so that graduation is tough but not impossible. If most everyone passes, clearly the standards are not tough enough. And if most fail, the dropout rate soars.

    "If you're looking at about one-third failing the reading section, that's an awful lot of kids who got to 10th-grade without mastering the state's standards for reading," said Jennifer Vranek, director of benchmarking and state services with Achieve Inc.

    "But it's not such a high number that the state can't support it. That's a political decision that has to be made. If your passing bar means 40 or 50 percent fail, the public won't support it."

    Even if Florida's initial passing rate is lower than educators would like, it could be worse. In Arizona, educators and lawmakers began rethinking their graduation requirement after nearly nine out of 10 students failed the math portion. The state has since reworked its math test. The math graduation test that was supposed to take effect in 2002 is set for 2004.

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