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Read, write, writhe

It was 2:30 in the middle of a sunny June day. For 9-year-old Diymond Doty, it was a day most remarkable for what she was not doing. She was not riding her bike. She was not watching Rugrats or fiddling with a Gameboy. She was not playing with her sister.

Diymond was studying.

Workbooks and practice books lay across the kitchen table. Mom sat next to her, quizzing Diymond on what she'd read. She prompted her constantly: Follow the instructions. Read the story twice. Eliminate multiple choice answers.

"And after this, you can be done," Angela Griffo told her daughter.

"Thank you, Lord!" Diymond shouted, her freckles wrinkling into a smile. "I've been working all day."

Scores of Pasco third-graders are in the same situation, studying hard during a time normally reserved for cookouts and family vacations. In Diymond's case, the explanation is in a small box at the very bottom of her last report card. The inside of the box is marked with a capital "X." Next to the box is a single word.

"Retained."

She was one of 43,000 third-graders who scored at the lowest level in the state's standardized reading test. By law, most of these students cannot be promoted to fourth grade unless they pull up their scores this summer.

But Griffo has a complaint. Diymond's report card, the one with the X on it, shows her class grades: two C's, 12 B's and an A.

"I didn't know the situation was that bad," Griffo said. "She was a B student."

Third-grade parents across Pasco have the same complaint, which has school officials taking a second look at how they relay information to parents about their children's academic progress.

It seems that Diymond is caught in a philosophical tug-of-war over the matter of grading. The state measures her progress by how well she does on a standardized test. In her case, she did poorly, so she got a bad grade.

Sounds logical.

But Pasco educators think there should be more to a grade than absolute performance. What if the kid comes from a home where there are no books? What if he gives an all-out effort every day? What if he scores poorly on his tests, but has shown remarkable progress over the course of the year?

In Pasco, the answer to those questions is: Give the kid a good grade.

The unintended result is the situation Diymond and her mom find themselves in this summer.

"It's the age-old dilemma of, "If a child is working hard and making progress, how do you communicate that to their parents?" said Susan Rine, the administrative assistant for Pasco County elementary schools. "And how do you not completely destroy their motivation and self esteem and still fairly report where they are?"

Reports read well, but don't tell whole story

The issue is a real one.

The St. Petersburg Times looked at report cards for five schools where students were at risk for repeating the third-grade because they scored poorly on the FCAT.

When it came to the subject of reading, the report cards showed that, of the 96 students affected:

+ 60 percent never got below a C;

+ 10 percent never got below a B;

+ 34 percent got D's as their lowest grade;

+ Only five students got U's, the lowest grade possible; and

+ Slightly more than one in five of the report cards for children enrolled at least three quarters did not mention that the student was reading below grade level until after the third nine weeks _ when the district specifically asked teachers to report to parents in the comments section if their children might be at risk for not passing the state's test.

"There were those students out there who teachers thought were doing okay," Rine said. "I think we had some teachers who were surprised."

A new legislative mandate designed to increase communication with parents specifically requires districts to tell parents on the report cards whether their children are performing at grade level.

It does not make clear whether the information should be disclosed at every quarter, but Pasco County school officials already are arranging to take up this issue this summer. Rine said they knew after the FCAT results came back that the district had some work to do in terms of reporting about academic progress to parents. The new law is simply accelerating that process.

"I have a feeling this is not just because Pasco County has had a problem with this," said Marti Meacher, a supervisor in the district's Curriculum and Instructional Services Division, who is helping spearhead the group taking up the issue.

Teachers and principals don't want to bruise young children educationally by giving them grades that discourage trying.

"A lot of what they (teachers) are trying to do is motivate and encourage, encourage, encourage," said Katherine Divine, director of research and evaluation services for the district.

To give a D to a third-grade child who started the year on a first-grade reading level, has made it to the second-grade reading level, but hasn't mastered the third-grade reading level yet, for example, could zap the child's motivation.

But then, along comes the FCAT and the mantra that Education Commissioner Jim Horne and Gov. Jeb Bush declared prominently in the buttons they pinned to their lapels when they delivered the FCAT results: There comes a time when children should not learn to read but "Read to Learn."

Said Bush at the time: "If God has given them the ability to gain this power and they haven't learned it, it's okay to hold them back so they can acquire these skills."

Unlike many Pasco County teachers, the FCAT doesn't consider a child's emotional development.

It doesn't look at how willing the student is to buckle down and read. It doesn't measure how eager the child is to answer a teacher's questions or volunteer to read. It doesn't consider the fact that Johnny's mother and father are in the midst of a brutal custody battle, and some of the fallout might have hit Johnny smack in the face.

"It's a struggle," Divine said. "It's a crisis of conscience for us to try to confront people with the cold facts and only the cold facts."

But some parents said there's something about a bad grade that communicates a productive urgency.

"If she had come home with a C or a D, we would have worked harder during the school year," Griffo said. "I don't think the FCAT is an accurate assessment, but if that's what they're going to use to decide if she's going to pass to the fourth grade or not, that's what they should use to grade her."

"Mom's Boot Camp' replaces summer frolic

The May night after the news came, Griffo sat on Diymond's bed and offered her daughter a choice.

Diymond could accept the state's judgment that, as a third-grader who didn't pass a reading test, she would not be fit for fourth grade.

Or, the B-student who loves school and loves her teachers could enroll in "Mom's Boot Camp," spend the summer attending reading camp and summer school, try to pass another test and perhaps make it into fourth grade on time.

"All I know is I want to go to the fourth grade," Diymond said recently. "And I don't want to be 20 when I graduate."

Diymond's decision rearranged summer plans for the whole family.

There would be less time on the new boat. There would be fewer hours spent bike riding or playing with her friends.

There would be about five weeks of summer school, three to five hours a day, before the time to test again came around.

There would be mom-directed lessons and a chapter of fiction each night while the sounds of her little sister playing carried in from the next room.

There would be times when Griffo, keenly aware of the fact that she does not hold teaching credentials, wondered if she was giving Diymond the right kind of feedback.

"It's hard when it's your own child," Griffo said.

About the time Diymond and Griffo faced facts about Florida's third grade rules, Griffo said, she finally received copies of Diymond's grades from the first quarter she spent in Oregon under her father's care.

In the middle of otherwise good grades, Diymond got a U in reading.

"They weren't scared to put a U," Griffo said. "If it's a U, it's a U."

"On grade level' is not clearly spelled out

There is another reason some parents of Pasco County students might have seen their "good" students become third-grade failures, said Rine.

"It's just not real clear-cut what "on grade level' is," Rine said.

In some ways, Pasco County and the State Department of Education have competing definitions.

While the state recommends what's known as the "Sunshine State Standards" to define what a student should be able to do at the end of each grade, Pasco County has long adhered to what is called its "multi-age," "continuous learning" philosophy.

Pasco educators are trained that children don't learn at the same pace each year. Rather, they grow in increments. While one child might already have mastered fractions well before the second grade, the Pasco philosophy goes, another might not get it until the beginning of the third.

"I'm not going to give you a U in reading because you came to me on a first-grade reading level," said Amy Griffith, a Gulfside Elementary reading specialist who has been working with Diymond. "If you worked hard all quarter long and you have U, U, U, what does that do to you? You're going to think you're a non-reader and as soon as you think you're a non-reader, you might as well throw in the towel."

What Pasco is trying to do, however, is to tighten the guidelines teachers use in measuring grade-level progress for kids. A detailed matrix developed by district administrators uses a variety of tests and other measures to help teachers pinpoint and follow individual student achievement.

Rine said that the district last spring compared the final FCAT grades for the 2001-02 third-graders with the district's grade-level definitions. They found that some of the kids who looked like they were on grade level by district standards were not scoring up to par on the FCAT.

Rine and Divine said educators are working to ratchet up district definitions for "on grade level" so there will be fewer and fewer surprises next year.

"We're trying to walk that path and figure out how to operate in both worlds successfully," Rine said.

Confidence at a peak as test date draws near

Diymond is getting bolder when she reads.

Once afraid to raise her hand to read out loud, she now freely volunteers in her summer school classes. She reads to her little sister and aloud to her mother.

"She's put her whole summer into this," Griffo said.

On July 31, Diymond will get one last chance to pass a test and go on to the fourth grade. She said she has shelved the doubt she had when she took the FCAT last spring.

"I feel like I'm going to pass," she said. "I just keep studying and studying and studying."

_ Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanellosptimes.com.

Grades vs. FCAT

A look at report cards for five Pasco County public schools found 96 third-graders in danger of being retained because of low reading scores on the FCAT. Of those:

+ In the first half of the year, more than 1 in 5 report cards in no way indicated the child was reading below grade level.

+ 10 percent of the students never got below a B in reading.

+ 60 percent never got below a C in reading.

+ 34 percent got a D as their lowest reading grade.

+ Of those, almost a third got their first D in the final grading period _ after teachers got the results of their students' FCAT results.

_ SOURCE: Pasco County School District records obtained from Moon Lake, Cox, Gulfside, Lake Myrtle and Sand Pine elementary schools.

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