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Schools use grades to address needs

Students who brought schools down from a B grade to a C on the state's grading system will get extra attention to help them improve.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999


LAKE MAGDALENE -- Principal Faye Pages could hardly believe it when she heard that her school -- the school one parent called the "Harvard of elementary schools" -- scored a C under the state's new grading system.

How was that possible? Lake Magdalene Elementary scored high on the FCAT and Florida Writes tests -- higher, even, than some schools that earned Bs.

But like many other schools in the area, Lake Magdalene's grade was affected by a small group of low-income or minority students who performed poorly on the standardized tests. In Lake Magdalene's case, just 17 out of 41 students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches scored a level one on the FCAT math test -- a statistic which dropped the school's rating from a B to a C.

"What bothers me so much about this report is that it looks like we're not working hard to educate our minority children," Pages said. "They're all our children."

The state used several factors to determine a school's grade, including overall test scores, attendance rates and suspension numbers. It also factored in the performance of "subgroups" -- any minority group that comprised 30 or more students in a grade, including black, Hispanic and low-income students.

If more than 40 percent of the students in a subgroup scored a level one -- the lowest score -- on the FCAT, or if more than 50 percent scored a one or two on Florida Writes, the school could not receive an A or B. Inadequate performance by a subgroup is marked with an asterisk on the accompanying chart.

Lake Magdalene's subgroup barely scored in this range. Forty-one percent (17 out of 41) of the students on free or reduced-price lunches scored a level one on the FCAT math test.

Other area schools have similar scores to Lake Magdalene. Hunter's Green, Maniscalco and Northwest elementary schools all scored high on the FCAT and Florida Writes tests, meeting what the state calls "higher performing criteria," yet all were given Cs. All the schools were downgraded because of the poor performance by subgroups.

Among middle schools, the same thing is true of Adams, Buchanan, Ben Hill and Walker, as well as other schools throughout the county.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education defends the formula, saying that it points out weak areas at some schools. If a school got an asterisk, spokeswoman Karen Chandler said, it's a sign that the school needs to focus more on black, Hispanic or low-income students.

"We want to make sure that all students are learning," she said.

Pages appreciates the formula, in part, because it identifies which students need more assistance. But she also is frustrated by it.

Many of the low-income students who scored a one on the FCAT came to Lake Magdalene within the past year or two. Of the 17 fifth-graders who scored a level one, five came to the school within the past two years, six within the past year and three within two weeks of the test. Pages thinks that if the students started elementary school at Lake Magdalene, their scores would have been higher.

"You can't teach a student that much in two weeks," she said.

Receiving two Fs in four years under the new system can lead to vouchers for students in a school. A grade of C does not cause such dire consequences, but it can affect a school's image. Pages said the C doesn't reflect the teachers' efforts.

"Our teachers are really demoralized," Pages said. "They know how hard they worked and I know how hard they worked." Hunter's Green Elementary scored well on the FCAT and Florida Writes tests, but was marked down for poor performance by some black students. Among black fifth-graders who took the math FCAT, 20 out of 37 (54 percent) received a score of one.

"For 20 children, that's why we got a C," principal Barbara Hancock said. "That's one piece of a very big picture."

The grade is frustrating, she said, but she will use the results to help the students who need it most. She said the school already offers special assistance to minorities and students with special needs, but now she will try to find more ways to help them.

"It's always good to analyze what you do," she said.

But analyzing a school's performance proved challenging during the past week. Pages learned that the state could have used several different numbers to arrive at the 40 percent figure. She and her staff crunched the numbers, and with all number combinations, the outcome was slightly above or slightly below 40 percent.

At one point, she thought the state must have used inaccurate or rounded-off numbers to achieve a 40 percent or above figure.

Now that she knows which numbers were used, she points out how close the school came to receiving a B. Without the scores of the three brand-new students who scored a one on the FCAT, the school would have 37 percent of the subgroup scoring a level one and would not have received the asterisk or a grade of C.

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