TAMPA — In a trailer down a dirt road behind Alexander Elementary School, teenagers sit huddled over a practice test.
It's pitch dark outside as they read from a passage by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munroe, depicting farmers in wartime who do their work with horses instead of tractors.
The students are asked what sound is described in the densely written introductory paragraph. Horses? Tractors? Voices of the farmers?
"Five minutes," instructor William Posey gently tells them.
The small group is among hundreds of students who complete high school every year in Hillsborough County without getting diplomas.
They've put in enough hours and earned high enough grades to march across the stage with their classmates. But the certificates of completion they receive instead of diplomas make it difficult to find a job, enter college or even join the military.
Curious about why this happens, School Board member Susan Valdes earlier this year contacted former students from Alonso, Leto and Sickles — the three high schools in her district — who were in this circumstance. The number rose from 66 to 93 between 2012 and 2013, when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test became more difficult to pass.
Seventeen of the former students agreed to meet with her to discuss what had gone wrong.
In most cases, the students had learned English as a second language and were stopped from getting a diploma by low scores on the reading portion of FCAT.
The interviews not only confirmed what Valdes already knew — that the reading FCAT can be a barrier for bilingual students — but also suggested students are not always advised about options.
Some were unaware they could return to high school for an FCAT preparation class and to retake the exam. Some did not realize they could take the ACT test and use that score in place of a passing FCAT score.
The ACT seemed better, she said, as students might find it embarrassing to return to high school. The letters originally stood for American College Testing, the company known for developing college entrance exams. Now the company and the test are simply ACT.
With the help of Marc Hutek, the district's director of education, Valdes got eight of the students into ACT prep classes.
Harry Tavares, a 19-year-old who went to Alonso High, was one of several preparing for a test on Dec. 14.
"I hope to get my diploma," he said. "If I do, I can go to HCC (Hillsborough Community College) and see what I can do there."
While it is possible to enter community college without a diploma, he said, "I'd have to pay for it out of pocket." With the diploma, he's eligible for financial aid. "I want to go into business management, maybe open my own business," he said.
He's not sure why he wasn't able to pass the FCAT at Alonso. As he remembers the test, "there just wasn't enough time," he said.
Alex Zuniga, also 19, ran into similar struggles at Leto High.
"I want to get my diploma and join the Army," said Zuniga, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household.
He studied culinary arts in high school and is considering a career in criminal justice after the military. He lives with his parents and worked for his uncle's retail store for a while but is now unemployed, he said.
He took the test on Dec. 14 and said it will be about three weeks before he gets the result.
"I think I did well," he said. "Let's hope for the best."
It's not an easy feat, Posey said. Given enough time, he said, all the students could pass. But they get only 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions. He advises students to read the prose fiction passages at normal speed. For the others, which are nonfiction, he coaches them in skimming the text and questions for key words.
"Leave nothing blank," he tells them, as they will not be penalized for guessing. And when you have to guess, "choose the same letter" to better the odds.
The test costs $36.50 for those who do not need the writing component, which is generally the case. The prep class costs $50 including a $5 pretest that lets the instructor pinpoint where the student needs help.
Valdes said she hopes to arrange for vouchers for future classes. It's the least the school district can do, she said, as a public education costs $60,000, conservatively. "I feel that we have failed these kids," she said. "We took your money and ran with it, and now you're on your own."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]