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Bay area students lead surge in writing scores

Pinellas County's fourth-graders led a statewide surge in writing scores this year, as Florida youngsters posted the highest average score ever on the Florida Writes test.

Tampa Bay area school districts each experienced the same impressive bump in the fourth-grade scores. Pinellas had the highest scores in the state, and Hillsborough joined two other districts in a tie for second place.

The news Monday was particularly sweet in Tampa, where Sulphur Springs Elementary School ended three years on the state's list of low-performing schools with an impressive display of writing that beat the state average.

"We expected to do well, but this is fabulous. Fabulous!" said Sulphur Springs principal Debra Arias, who took over the school last year with a largely new staff and a longer school day.

In all, 27 schools statewide wrote their way off the state's list of low performers, including Edison Elementary in Tampa. Three schools remain on the list.

The leap in fourth-grade scores broke a pattern of slow, incremental progress for fourth-graders since the first disappointing scores were reported five years ago. After starting with a statewide average of 2 in 1993 (scores range from a low of 1 to a high of 6), Florida's fourth-graders have improved to a 3.

"What we're seeing is good beginning-level writing that wasn't there five years ago," said Mark Heidorn, supervisor of student assessment for the Florida Department of Education.

The results for eighth- and 10th-graders were largely unchanged statewide, and a mixed bag locally. Eighth-grade scores slipped slightly, and the 10th-grade scores held steady.

As they have done for years, Pinellas and Hillsborough were at or near the top of the heap at all three grade levels.

Darian Walker, supervisor of secondary language arts for Pinellas County, said she was pleased to see that students weren't worn out or distracted by the state's ambitious new test _ known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. Both Florida Writes and FCAT are given to fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders in late January and early February.

Citrus County's eighth- and 10th-graders slipped and remained below the state averages in their writing scores this year. Their fourth-graders followed the statewide trend with an impressive jump. Hernando County saw improvement in both fourth and eighth grade but remained below the state averages and slipped in grade 10.

Pasco County students saw improvement in fourth and eighth grades, and met or exceeded the state averages. Their 10th-grade scores were just under the state average.

"We're seeing some improvement, but we can still be better," said Sandy Ramos, assistant superintendent in charge of instruction for Pasco schools.

Florida Writes is essentially a one-question test (each child is assigned one of only two questions, known as prompts), and testing officials acknowledge that the difficulty of the prompt can affect the results. One year when scores were particularly disappointing, teachers complained that students were turned off by the prompt. Because of that, officials try not to overemphasize year-by-year comparisons.

However, education officials say the steady progress and the leap in fourth-grade scores this year signal genuine improvements in writing instruction.

For evidence, they say, look not only at the scores, but at how instruction has changed.

"When those first scores came out (in 1993), it was a very sobering time," said Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "But people made changes, and the scores improved."

Chief among the changes has been the frequency of writing assignments in class, and the training of teachers _ not only the teachers whose students are about to be tested.

"You can't just do it in the fourth grade," said Michele Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Tampa, which posted an impressive 3.9 average this year. "I can put the finishing touches on it and get the kids excited about taking the test, but the foundation has to start earlier.

"I have third-grade teachers who send me papers and ask me to read. We send things back and forth. That's the only way to do it."

The write stuff

Writing scores for Florida's fourth-graders took a giant leap this year, as the state average passed the 3.0 mark for the first time on the Florida Writes test. (Possible scores range from a low of 1 to a high of 6.) The scores in eighth- and tenth-grade were a mixed bag for Tampa Bay area school districts, but fourth-graders around the Bay area all showed marked improvement.

GRADE 4 GRADE 8 GRADE 10

'96 '97 '98 '96 '97 '98 '96 '97 '98

Citrus 2.4 2.4 2.9 3.6 3.4 3.1 3.3 3.6 3.5

Hernando 2.6 2.4 2.9 3.1 3.0 3.2 3.4 3.5 3.4

Hillsborough 2.6 2.9 3.3 3.7 3.6 3.5 3.5 3.8 3.8

Pasco 2.4 2.6 3.0 3.5 3.3 3.4 3.3 3.6 3.5

Pinellas 2.9 2.9 3.4 3.8 3.5 3.6 3.5 3.9 3.8

State 2.5 2.6 3.0 3.5 3.4 3.3 3.3 3.6 3.6

Source: Florida Department of Education

Writing samples

In the state's Florida Writes test, students are given 45 minutes to write an essay on a particular topic. Scores range from a low of 1 (which is undeveloped and poorly organized) to a high of 6 (well organized, rich use of vocabulary and examples, has a sense of completeness.) This year fourth-graders were asked to write about a time when they or someone else found something.

Score: 1

I found a dollar. I then I found a lizort. I found lots of things. I like finding things.

Score: 3

When I was two years old, I hid my mom's 14 kt gold watch. I hid it in my moms dresser drawer. She thought I flushed it down the toilet. She didn't find it for two years when she was going through her clothes. She really liked that watch. It was gold with a strechy wrist band. It was beautiful. One day I was watching a movie and my mom called me upstairs. She didn't look so happy. She had something white in her hands. She was holding the watch I hid two years ago wrapped up in toilet tissue. She didn't ground me only because I was four years old. I still remember that day when I hid my moms watch, and I'll never do that again. (Not!!!!)

Score: 6

I had seven more pieces to go. So close... Six more, five more... "Hey, where are those last five pieces?" I wondered. I stood up and checked the box. No, not there. Hmmmm... "Hey, Anna, come help me find my puzzle pieces." I yelled. "Coming," she yelled back.

She stomped down the stairs, huffing and puffing. "I ran all the way, it better be an important puzzle," she panted.

"It's a kitten puzzle, you're favorite," I answered matter-of-factly.

"Oh, that's pretty important. How many pieces are missing," she questioned, looking innocent. When she looks at me like that, it is not a good thing.

"Four, exactly, two out of the kitten's eye, and two out of her nose."

"Okay, you take the upstairs, I'll take the downstairs," she barked at me. Uh, oh, the drill sergent act.

"Yes, sir." I said, and saluted.

Well, about an hour later, let's just say the upstairs looked like a bomb had exploded. I ran down the stairs. "Didn't..." I started, but stopped myself short. It was worse than the upstairs! And there was Anna, sitting amongst the trash, watching t.v. and eating popcorn. But now I must have steam coming from my head.

"Anna," I screamed. "What," she looked at me with the innocent look, but I wasn't going to fall for it. "Clean this up now," I said, clenching my teeth. "Okay," she answered in a voice so sweet it sounded like it was dripping with honey. I clomped upstairs.

Around six that night, after my parents had yelled at me for not having enough responsibility and after I had to clean up the messs, I asked a question. One question.

"Where are those puzzle pieces?" I smiled, and looked directly at Anna. She didn't answer. I checked the puzzle box one more time and...

"Arghh!" I screamed, hitting myself on the forehead. "I found them right here, where they were all along!"

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