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Students snubbing state test

Many 10th-graders across the state take a pass on the state-mandated test, apparently wondering, what's in it for us? And for now, at least, it's a valid question.

The test results can determine which public schools will have to grant students private tuition vouchers, and which will get increased state money.

But despite its importance to the state, when the announcement was made in February ordering 10th-graders at Pinellas County's Dixie Hollins High School to report to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, dozens of sophomores ignored it.

Some figured they already took the test once (they were repeating 10th grade), and didn't have to take it again. They were wrong.

But 44 students didn't even have that excuse. Though they apparently were in school, they simply skipped the two-day test.

"It is obvious these students skipped or dodged the test," Dixie Hollins Principal Jeff Haynes wrote to the Department of Education when asked to explain why fewer than 80 percent of his 10th-graders took the FCAT.

Dixie, in Pinellas County, wasn't alone. Across the state, 52 schools received an "incomplete" grade from the state because they didn't have enough students take the test. That includes three high schools in Pasco County.

The phenomenon has reminded school officials of a simple truth: If you're going to give students a truly challenging test _ a test that requires hours and days of concentration _ you had better give them a clear incentive to show up. Otherwise, they might just say no _ and suffer no consequences.

"That can be a problem," said Tom Fisher, director of testing for the state. "Some of them don't feel it affects them in any way. Sometimes we see the same thing with Florida Writes. Some kids just write a nasty letter and turn it in."

Unlike a regular classroom test, the FCAT doesn't affect a student's grade. Unlike the SAT, it doesn't determine which college a student will attend.

Fisher is quick to point out how important the FCAT is in the grand scheme of things. It helps determine a school's letter grade given by the state. Impressive FCAT scores could lead to financial rewards. Dismal scores could make students eligible for state vouchers.

And soon it will be important for individual students. Starting next year, students will have to pass FCAT to graduate. It will take the place of the High School Competency Test.

"Then it will matter to them," Fisher said.

But for now, what's in it for students?

"There is a concern out there that kids don't see this as a high-stakes test," said Bob Dorn, director of secondary education for the Pasco County schools. "They don't think it matters."

Dixie Hollins principal Haynes and the other 51 principals around the state were taken aback when they learned that the state gave their schools incomplete grades. No one knew the state would hold them to a standard of 80 percent, and they weren't aware that incomplete grades were a part of the A through F grading plan. The state is acting on the assumption that if large numbers of students do not take the test, the results might not paint an accurate picture.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, the Department of Education has asked schools for an explanation.

"I don't have a problem with that, it's not like we're hiding kids, or discouraging kids from taking the test," Haynes said.

If schools provide the Department of Education with a credible explanation, they will get the grade they would have gotten had all their students taken the test. For Dixie Hollins High it will mean a grade of C, the same grade most Pinellas high schools got. If not, they could be dropped a letter grade.

It seems likely that the state will give schools the benefit of the doubt this year. In a letter to Pasco County, the director of the DOE division of public schools said he is recommending to the commissioner of education that he give schools the grades they earned, and not penalize any schools this year. That same DOE official, David Mosrie, also will propose that schools be required to test 90 percent or more of their students.

The recommendations have not yet been approved by Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher.

Despite the fact that the state did not notify districts of the 80 percent rule, Haynes agreed it is a fair standard.

After he received the incomplete grade, Haynes conducted an investigation and tried to learn the status of every 10th-grader during the February test. He learned that a couple of students withdrew from school before the test. A handful were serving suspensions on those days. Some took the makeup test.

Eventually, Haynes came to a troubling number:

"I was kind of shocked that 44 kids just didn't take the test," he said, adding that the 44 students were listed as attending school that day. "A lot of kids just don't want to take it."

Since high school classes often are a amalgam of students from several grades, it can be difficult for teachers to recall which students are 10th-graders and which are not. So some students may have simply stayed in class and avoided the test.

Haynes' research showed that more than half the students who missed the test withdrew from school after the test. Evidently some of those students saw no reason to take the test if they planned to leave school anyway.

Other schools discovered similar patterns.

"We had some students absent, but there are some, I can't tell you where they went," said Shirley Rodriguez, principal at Englewood High School in Jacksonville, a school that received an incomplete grade. "They were in school that day, but we had 19 kids I could not account for. Somehow they disappeared."

Rodriguez agrees that a school should have 100 percent of its 10th-graders _ or close to it _ take the all-important FCAT.

"Now that we know the rules, we'll be over 80 percent next year," Rodriguez said.

"But," she added, "you have to remember who we're dealing with here. Once you get to high school, if there's something you really don't want to do, you're not going to do it."