Storms, days lost,
higher standards could affect FCAT scores, lower grades
By Scott Travis, Education Writer
With two hurricanes, less teacher training and tougher state and federal requirements, this could be a depressing year for student achievement on the FCAT.
Last year, two-thirds of the schools received grades of A or B based on FCAT scores. None was slapped with a failing grade.
This year, however, the state is raising the minimum passing score for writing. For the first time, the scores of special education and limited-English proficient students will be factored into a school grade. Those students historically have performed below average on the FCAT.
District officials say this was a bad time to get hit by two hurricanes.
"The bar is going up at a time when we've had setbacks," Superintendent Art Johnson said. "It's going to be a challenge, no question."
The state decided in the spring to toughen the school grade requirements for this year's FCAT, which will be given in March. The passing score on the writing exam is going from 3 to 3.5 out of a possible 6. There is no score that special education and limited-English proficient students have to achieve, but their performance has to improve to avoid penalties.
It's going to be tougher to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law as well. Last year, the federal government required about one-third of students to be proficient in reading and math to make "adequate yearly progress." This year, more than half will have to pass the two subjects.
While educators expected the tougher standards, they were completely unprepared to miss 12 days of classes because of Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Jeanne.
"When you start a new school year, you're energized and recharged," said Joseph Depasquale, principal at North Palm Beach Elementary. "But after two hurricanes, it's hard to get that momentum back, to get students refocused. It's going to have an impact. How much, I don't know."
Nine of the 12 days are being made up. But teachers are losing four days that normally would be used for training. Johnson said that could hurt student achievement as well.
Johnson asked state officials not to count this year's FCAT scores for school grading. Education Commission John Winn rejected that request, saying he thinks students can rise to the occasion.
The district will be able to postpone the test for one week. Teachers and principals now are looking for ways to overcome the obstacles.
"We are behind because of the hurricane, but we're not going to use that as an excuse any more," Boca Raton Middle Principal Peter Licata said.
The school is canceling some field trips and instructing teachers to maximize every minute of classroom time, Licata said. Boca Raton Middle was A-rated last year, but special education students and those with limited English skills performed poorly.
They have to improve, or the school might not be able to maintain its high grade. About one-third of the 1,200 students at the school fall into one of the two groups.
The district has given the school about $10,000 to pay teachers to tutor special education students after school and on Saturdays, Licata said.
The school also added computer lab time for students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program.
Noelia Bruno, a seventh grader who arrived from Uruguay two years ago,is optimistic.
"We missed a lot of days of school, but I think I'll do well," she said. "I've been taking notes in class and studying."
Bruno's teacher, Arlene Goldstein, says it is difficult for students who are new to the United States to score well on the FCAT.
Many don't have computers at home or parents who speak English. She worries that their scores may hurt Boca Middle's grade. "But we're working very hard and I think we're an A school whether the state says so or not."
Scott Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6637.