SAN ANTONIO — FCAT testing looms just weeks away, and the third-grade team at San Antonio Elementary has concerns.
To move into the fourth grade, third graders need to earn a passing score on the FCAT reading exam. Yet a recent assessment showed that 54 percent of the team's students are reading below grade level.
"We need to talk about what to do," teacher Rebecca Beyer told her team as they gathered Wednesday in the school cafeteria for a brainstorming session.
Since the beginning of the school year, San Antonio Elementary School has brought its teaching teams together to solve academic problems, using data to help make informed decisions. Back in October, the third-grade group set its focus on improving children's ability to decode words through phonics.
More than 80 percent of students were having problems there. So the teachers amped up their classroom instruction of phonics generally, and provided additional pullout assistance for a smaller group of youngsters who had more specific needs beyond group lessons.
As a result, the third-graders' median score on their reading assessment rose from the 21st percentile to nearly the 50th percentile.
"We moved kids in the right direction," Beyer observed.
The kids are ready for the next step, adding more comprehension skills to their lessons.
Identifying that problem was the easy part for the team, which has grown accustomed to using testing information to guide instruction. But finding the right solution wasn't so simple.
There's no single assessment to judge a student's ability to comprehend a reading, the teachers noted, as the skills are wrapped together in several strategies. Ideas might look good on paper, they said, but when they talked them through, flaws emerged.
For instance, the idea of printing out tests for students to take on paper rather than on a computer ran into a budgetary restriction on the number of copies or printouts the school can afford.
As the team talked, they had some specific desires.
"We want to use something that we already have and that we're using," Cindy Bankowski said.
That way, students can make connections with strategies they know, but the teachers can use them in better ways.
They also wanted to find measurable goals, so the teachers know if they are making real progress.
"That can be a challenge sometimes," longtime educator Kathie Coker said.
The biggest barrier, teacher Sheri Davis said, is time. It can be tough to fit all the needed lessons into the day and into the school year, she said, especially when the goal is mastery.
After nearly an hour at the table, the teachers had a clear sense of where they needed to go. They hadn't found the best answer yet, though.
"It is definitely a process," Beyer said. "The point that they're all talking about it together is an improvement."
Principal Vanessa Hilton agreed that the effort takes time, and that every step is one toward enhanced education for all students. That's why the groups focus on interventions for the whole group of students, smaller groups with more needs and individual attention for children with the most intense problems.
The third-grade team continues to make progress, Hilton said, and it should show gains by the time the FCAT testing begins. And because this problem-solving system is in place for all grades, she added, over time the school should be able to better meet its goal of helping all kids achieve.
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.