LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County special education students outperformed the state average on the annual Florida Alternate Assessment test this year, with about three-quarters of them scoring at proficiency levels in each subject area.
Their performance marks a slight improvement in math and writing from 2011, while the reading scores held steady.
"This is not a surprise for us," said Jackie Choo, a district supervisor of exceptional student education. "We have been doing a lot of work to raise expectations and to provide supports for those increased expectations. We are very, very pleased with the results."
In the past, the results of the FAA test have not garnered any attention. Given to students for whom taking the FCAT is considered "inappropriate, even with accommodations," the exam has not been a major factor beyond determining how those students are advancing in school.
When the state won a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements this year, though, it also had to agree to count the testing proficiency of all students in its education accountability system. That meant students' FAA levels would come into play for school grades for the first time.
The test is graded on a 1 through 9 scale, with scores of 4 or higher considered as proficient levels.
Some parents applauded the idea of counting every child, saying that school leaders would take their children's education more seriously knowing they would be included in the accountability measures. Some school leaders expressed concerns that the state might be hurting schools by using the children's proficiency results, rather than looking at their gains.
A good number of the students who take the FAA have severe disabilities.
The State Board of Education aimed to strike a balance by giving additional credit to students who make learning gains on the FAA greater than the minimum, while also making clear that FAA results would be included in school grading right alongside the FCAT.
In Pasco, 585 students took the FAA reading exam, with 77 percent scoring a 4 or better. In math, 588 students took the test, with 77 percent scoring 4 or better. Smaller numbers took the writing and science exams, with passing rates of 73 percent and 75 percent, respectively.
Statewide, 71 percent of students taking the FAA reading exam, and 66 percent of those taking the math portion, scored at a proficient level.
Choo said the district had taken great strides to train teachers with the increasing academic standards, working with other organizations to find the best instructional methods for students with special needs.
"It is exciting to see the work that teachers do with students every day is paying off," she said.
The Florida Department of Education also recently gave Pasco's exceptional student education programs its top mark for the district's work meeting the requirements and purpose of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"If you have high expectations for students, even those with disabilities, they will rise to those expectations, given proper levels of support," district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.