NEW PORT RICHEY — Marco Urrusquieta didn't have to take the FCAT.
His learning disability in reading would have gained him a waiver, allowing him to graduate high school without the exam.
But he wasn't about to take the easy way out.
He took the reading FCAT as a freshman. He failed.
He failed as a sophomore, as a junior and as a senior — five times in all, often by the slimmest of margins.
When Urrusquieta tried to earn a passing score on the SAT and ACT, which the state accepts in lieu of the FCAT, he missed the mark there, too. But he wouldn't give up.
In March he took what would be his final stab at the FCAT before he was scheduled to graduate from Gulf High.
Late Wednesday, he got the news from reading teacher Deanna Waide: He passed with 8 points to spare.
"I froze. I didn't know what to do," the 17-year-old senior said. "After hearing all these years, 'You failed. You failed by 2 points, you failed by 6 points,' it's finally 'You passed.' "
With just two weeks to go until graduation, a few hundred anxious Pasco County high school seniors who had yet to pass the exit-level state exam got word Wednesday and Thursday of their retake results. Some, like Urrusquieta, were ecstatic.
But the news wasn't so good for everyone.
Of 177 seniors retaking the math test, just 36 percent passed. Of 430 retaking the reading section, 20 percent passed.
That's not necessarily a reflection of how many won't graduate with a diploma. Several already had earned an acceptable replacement score on the ACT or SAT, for instance, and some had received special education waivers.
At Wiregrass Ranch High, for instance, all but two of the seniors who retook the FCAT will be graduating regardless of whether they passed, assistant principal Robin White said. And thanks to a 2007 School Board vote, even students who did not pass the FCAT may participate in commencement.
It's the accomplishment that mattered most for Urrusquieta. Had he not passed the test, he would not have walked with his friends at graduation — even though he would have been allowed. His classmate Martisha Jones, who also passed the FCAT after five attempts, agreed.
"If I did not pass, it would be a waste to walk across the stage," said Jones, 18. "For what? For nothing."
"Because you're false," Urrusquieta chimed in. "You're telling yourself a lie."
Without a passing score on the FCAT, ACT or SAT, he said, you're not a true high school graduate. You get a certificate of completion, but loads of work remains to get ahead, whether in college or in the world of work.
That's why Urrusquieta said he pushed himself to pass even though he didn't have to.
"I feel more proud of myself that I got it the way I should have instead of cheating, basically," he said.
Jones learned she had passed while doing wash in the coin laundry. She didn't mind the stares as she screamed and jumped up and down.
"It was just a relief, really," said Jones, a varsity basketball player who had all her other graduation requirements in order.
Passing the FCAT did not come easily, she said, because of the pressure that comes with the test. She had earned certification already as a nursing assistant and pharmacy aide through the school's health academy, and hopes to become a nurse. But the stress of the test got to her.
She said the stark realization that the FCAT stood between her and a diploma made her buckle down. Waide offered plenty of advice how to pass not only the exit exam, but also any type of test that comes along, Jones and Urrusquieta said.
Both received extra tutoring, available after school and during lunch periods, as well as taking intensive reading classes and receiving plenty of hints on how to better read and recall — a key when reading passages that are, in Urrusquieta's view, "boring."
"Their help really does help," Urrusquieta said of the teachers. "Students don't realize that."
Waide, the reading teacher, said she and other teachers have strategies they know will work, though she also acknowledged that not every teacher can reach every student. But if teachers collaborate to do the best for students, and students take advantage, success can come, she said.
"These are strategies not just for the FCAT," Waide said. "If they listen, they actually get that."
Over at Hudson High, a similar approach led to a 51 percent passing rate on the FCAT math retake — well above the district passing rate.
"There is no magic bullet," Hudson assistant principal Michelle Williams said. "Our students worked hard and our teachers worked hard."
The FCAT behind them, Jones and Urrusquieta look forward to the next steps in their education.
For Urrusquieta, it's becoming an emergency medical technician or a paramedic at Pasco-Hernando Community College. For Jones, that's a year at St. Petersburg College, with a long-term goal of a nursing degree.
But first, graduation.
"It's exciting," said Jones, thrilled that she doesn't have to spend her summer retaking tests and possibly seeking a GED. "When I walk across that stage, everybody is going to know I passed FCAT."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.