Sarasota Herald Tribune
February 26, 2006

 by Tiffany Lankes


No one at Tillman Elementary School understood Javier Martinez when he showed up in December. The 11-year-old Mexican immigrant speaks an indigenous dialect, not the English or Spanish more common at the Palmetto school.

One of his first assignments was to complete a practice version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. His teachers told him to just do his best.

"We're not sure he even understood that," said Tillman teacher Cris Pinheiro.

This week, Javier will take the real FCAT, and his performance along with other struggling students will make a difference in whether his school gets penalized under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"No child is exempt," Pinheiro said.. "It's going to be very difficult for him."

Standardized tests like the FCAT are the centerpiece of an aggressive national movement in school reform. The emphasis on testing means that even children facing intense academic challenges -- like those who don't speak English, are disabled or hospitalized -- have to take the test, and their scores can have profound impacts on their schools.

Schools that don't meet the federal goals are penalized and have to pay for costly remedial programs geared toward helping the students improve. In some cases, principals and teachers have their jobs on the line, too.

While the penalties are costly, some administrators say the new programs are working, with more children reading at grade level every year.

"This has affected every school, and it will continue to do so in very significant ways," said Thomas Coulson, principal at Toledo Blade Elementary School in North Port.

The high stakes create pressure to perform felt from the superintendent's office to the classroom.

Even Javier feels the heat.

The fifth-grader knew some Spanish when he came to Tillman, but not much. And what he knows is very basic, street-speak.

For about an hour every day, Javier leaves his regular classroom to learn English.

He sits at a half-moon shaped table with three other children as Pinheiro reviews one-syllable words -- not the sort of vocabulary he'll be tested on this week.

Box. Tree. Friend. House.

Javier struggles to repeat them.

Pinheiro then gives each of the students a card with a verb and asks them to write a sentence.

"Javier, make a sentence using drink," she says.

He stares at her and shakes his head no.

"Un oración," she repeats, using the Spanish word for sentence instead. "Entiendes?"

Do you understand, she asks him in Spanish.

Again, he shakes his head no.

        Meeting goals, or else

Florida students have been taking the FCAT for years. But only now -- under the No Child law -- are schools being penalized financially if their students don't do well.

Before the federal law, Florida used the test to assign schools grades and reward those that did well. Aside from a bad rating, schools that did poorly only got penalized if they failed four years in a row.

The state now uses the test to gauge whether schools are meeting the federal law, which aims to have all children reading at grade level by 2014. Each year Florida schools must prove all students are getting closer to that goal and doing better in math.

Last year, more than 70 percent of Florida schools failed to meet the goals.

Not meeting them carries a hefty cost for schools that receive federal funding due to the fact that the majority of their students are poor. The federal dollars these schools receive is the only leverage the government has to enforce the law. That's why they're the only schools to face penalties -- like having to pay for private tutoring and remedial programs -- costing them up to 20 percent of their federal funding each year.

"When you start losing dollars, you start to notice," said Constance White-Davis, principal at Alta Vista Elementary School in Sarasota.

The sanctions are meant to prod schools to improve.

Principals say it forces them to take money from established programs and spend it on unregulated and unproven private services.

And each year, the penalties get more extreme. Some districts have even had to change administrators and curriculum at failing schools.

After Wakeland Elementary School failed to meet the goals four years in a row, Manatee officials brought in a new principal and started an ambitious learning program.

Those drastic changes have principals like White-Davis keeping a closer eye on the FCAT, which students take this week. If Alta Vista doesn't meet the goals this year, the school could face the same fate as Wakeland.

"I know what happens if we don't make it this year," White-Davis said. "It definitely gets my attention."

The state tried to soften the blow of the sanctions last year by asking the federal government to exempt schools that receive top ratings under Florida's own accountability plan. The U.S. Department of Education rejected the plan.

Florida is again trying this year to make it easier for its schools to meet the goals by asking the federal government to look at how many students improved their scores -- not just how many passed the test.

If the federal government accepts the plan, that could drastically change how many Florida schools get penalized.

        More tuned in; more aware

While the No Child law has been costly for some schools, some administrators say the required programs are paying off.

After it didn't meet the federal goals last year, Toledo Blade Elementary School in North Port hired remedial teachers and started using more practice tests.

"The teachers have been more tuned in to the kids they're working with," said Coulson, the principal. "They're more aware, they have more tools and we are better able to diagnose our children's needs."

Last year, the percentage of Tillman students reading at grade level, or as well as they should for their age, shot up 22 percentage points after the school introduced new programs under the No Child law.

But those gains came at a cost for some Tillman students, who traded time in special classes, lunch or recess for extra test preparation time.

About 80 percent of Tillman students are considered poor because they receive free or reduced-priced lunch. Like Javier, about one in three Tillman students is learning English.

By law, schools must teach those children and help them learn English. All Florida educators have to complete training in teaching language. Most children like Javier spend most of their day in a regular classroom.

It isn't always easy.

Javier sits hunched over his work, slightly withdrawn from the class. He swings his legs and stares down at a book. Wrinkles creep across his forehead as his teacher, Stephanie Woodie, starts to speak.

She asks the class to answer a question by raising their hands and showing either thumbs up or thumbs down.

Javier just looks straight ahead.

"Some days, you come in and he'll just sit there, and you have no idea whether you're reaching him," Woodie said. "There's a lot of days I feel like I can never give him what he needs."

Javier's mother says her son loves school and wants to learn. But she suspects he often has no idea what his teachers are saying.

Javier will get some help when he takes the all-English FCAT this week -- he'll have as much time as he needs to complete the exam. He'll also be able to use an English/Spanish translation dictionary, but as his teachers say that may not help because Javier speaks Mizteca.

When teachers ask him about the FCAT, he tells them he is nervous."Es dificíl," he says. It's difficult.

Children like Javier typically take five to seven years to learn the language well enough to understand the FCAT.

Most of these children don't even start speaking any language in the classroom until six months after they arrive, Pinheiro says.

Javier has been at Tillman barely eight weeks.

"There are many Javiers out there," Pinheiro says.