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    Candidate wants to halt FCAT tests

    George Sheldon, candidate for education commissioner, says the FCAT "is a disaster.''

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- Democratic education commissioner candidate George Sheldon has proposed overhauling Florida's education reform system by throwing out the state test known as FCAT and moving away from labeling schools with A through F grades.

    Instead, students would take new tests at the beginning and at the end of the year to measure how much progress they've made. Schools would be judged on how well they move students along, not on how many students pass one state test.

    "I think the FCAT is a disaster," Sheldon said Wednesday about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the centerpiece of the state's testing and accountability system.

    This year, the FCAT will assess whether third- through 10th-graders meet state standards in reading and math. Students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades also will take a writing FCAT. Schools will get A through F grades based largely on the percentage of students passing the FCAT. Students at failing schools can eventually get vouchers to go to a private school.

    Educators have complained that the FCAT dominates their time with practice tests and that school grades stigmatize struggling schools.

    The system "relies too heavily on one high-stakes test," said Sheldon, a lawyer and former Tampa lawmaker who is challenging Republican Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg for the education commissioner's job.

    Crist is a lawyer and former Pinellas state senator who strongly supports the FCAT and the A through F school grading system proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

    Under Sheldon's plan, students still would take a test -- not the FCAT, but a redesigned test -- at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. The results would show how much a child has improved.

    Schools should be given credit if a student makes progress, even if that child doesn't meet grade-level standards by the end of the year, according to Sheldon.

    That is because numerous studies have shown that children from poor families -- those who qualify for free and reduced lunch at school -- do worse on achievement tests. So schools in high-poverty areas have a bigger challenge than schools in affluent areas. To be fair, the state's accountability system should take that into consideration, Sheldon said.

    Under his plan, schools would predict how much progress students should make in a given year based on previous test scores and the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. When students take the year-end test, actual progress will be determined. The state would compare the predicted and actual progress to determine whether a school performed above or below expectations.

    Crist blasted the Sheldon proposal, saying it rejects the notion that children of all backgrounds can and should learn, and should be held to high standards.

    "I think he's dead wrong," said Crist. "All children can learn, and we've got to make sure they do learn."

    Schools should not be given a "sliding scale" by which they are held accountable, Crist said.

    Sheldon insists that children still will be held to high standards and expected to perform at grade level. If they are behind grade level, they can be given intense tutoring, attend after-school programs and get other help to catch up.

    The testing and grading issue is a big difference between the candidates, who are in a surprisingly tight race according to recent polls. Crist has raised more than $1.5-million, has the support of Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, and is already running statewide television ads.

    Sheldon has raised less than $350,000 and won't be running ads until a week or 10 days before election day. But he has some big-name support: U.S. Sen. Bob Graham will be co-hosting a fundraiser for Sheldon in coming weeks. And Sheldon, who has been active in Clinton-Gore presidential campaigns, got a call from Vice President Al Gore on the day after he won the Democratic primary for education commissioner.

    Whoever wins the education commissioner's race will serve only two years. Starting in 2003, the education commissioner will be appointed, not elected.

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