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Big drop in FCAT scores adds fuel to feud

As they confronted the biggest drop in elementary school grades in at least eight years, Florida superintendents continued an unprecedented effort Friday to challenge the validity of this year's FCAT scores.

The Hillsborough school district learned it has eight D and F elementary schools — up from one last year — due to tumbling reading scores. Pinellas also has eight, up from zero.

The grades released Friday led Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen and Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia to offer fresh criticism about how the state has handled district concerns over statistical anomalies.

"There's no doubt that the questions … need to be answered," Elia said in a press conference Friday morning.

The response from the state's top school official? The superintendents are being "selfish."

"If you get a valid answer that makes sense, you're supposed to move on," said T. Willard Fair, chairman of the state Board of Education, referring to three independent audits that found no problems with the scores. "It's all about how they are going to be perceived by the public as to how they're doing their job."

Without a doubt, the month-long barrage about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — launched by Elia and four other superintendents on July 12 — has created even more suspicion about a test that many parents and teachers have never trusted.

Hillsborough County School Board member Candy Olson had a word to the state: "Think," she said. "Think about what you are doing to the children and the teachers in this state and get it right."

Other counties reported similar drops in elementary school grades. In Hernando, four elementary schools fell at least one letter grade, while two schools moved up a notch. In Pasco, 18 schools dropped one letter grade, and nine more tumbled by two letter grades.

FCAT results help determine placement for many students, teachers and principals. And with the new school year beginning by the end of the month, districts will be scrambling to put them in the right spots.

Lower scores could mean more students identified for extra help, as well as staffing changes, including additional academic coaches in schools that saw the biggest drops.

Despite the outside audits, the superintendents association issued a scathing statement Thursday night, listing concerns that it says were not answered by the audits or by the Florida Department of Education — and requesting that school grades be delayed.

The head of the association suggested the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores will wind up in court, even if it's not his group that files suit.

"I would be real surprised if someone does not step up on behalf of the students of Florida and say, 'We can't stop here, we have to move forward until we can be assured that the data … is accurate,' " said Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

District officials are especially alarmed by steep drops in fourth- and fifth-grade reading scores.

The superintendents' concerns are highly technical, involving the complicated processes that go into making a standardized test. Among other things, they wanted the Department of Education to see if a change in content on some of the reading tests — for example, a greater emphasis on main idea and purpose, which students struggle with more — might be responsible for the dips.

Shortly before the school grades were released, Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith posted a point-by-point rebuttal to the superintendents on the department website. He continued his defense during a noon conference call with the media.

Several factors likely played a role in the drop in grades, he said, including the economy's crunch on families and funding cuts in reading programs. He also said it is increasingly difficult for the lowest-performing students to keep making gains on top of the progress they've already made in recent years.

Considering that the scores and school grades were already late, Smith said he saw no reason for further delay. "We have a total of three good, clean audits and I think that should suffice that the process we're using is a process to be trusted."

In Hillsborough, 77 percent of that district's elementary and middle schools earned A's and B's, but three elementaries earned F's : Just, Miles and Booker T. Washington.

The three schools are in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. They have struggled, despite relatively small student bodies and extra funding under the federal Title I program.

But the environmental challenges are daunting.

• Just, with 622 students, draws from the crime-ridden North Boulevard Homes public housing complex.

• Miles, with a population of 707, pulls from the University area in north Tampa.

• Washington which has 478 students, is in a low-income neighborhood just southwest of Ybor City.

Two of the three F schools — Washington and Just, along with Potter Elementary in east Tampa, already had been earmarked for extended hours in hopes of improving student performance, said Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for the Hillsborough school district.

The extra attendance will be voluntary.

Despite the dips, the district did take pains to highlight some successes like McDonald Elementary in Seffner, which went from three straight Cs to an A. .

It was also clear Friday that many principals and superintendents were resigned to living with the results, however skeptical they might be.

"I have serious concerns over particular areas," Elia said. "But we have to move forward."

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.

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Big drop in FCAT scores adds fuel to feud 08/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 5:54pm]
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