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READING TEST OFF TO A FAST START

The county's teachers embrace it as a way to tailor lessons to each child's needs.

Word went out Wednesday in Lake Myrtle Elementary School's principal's newsletter: Teachers have launched a new test aimed at better assessing students' reading abilities and designing instructional goals.

It's called FAIR, short for Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading. And it's quickly taking root in Pasco County schools.

After just three days, 8,619 of the county's public school students (about 12 percent) had taken the test, which is given at all grade levels. Several schools delayed or skipped showing President Barack Obama's stay-in-school speech to students on Tuesday to stay on track with the first round of assessments, which must be complete by mid October.

Several other districts have not moved as swiftly to begin the program, which the Department of Education made available statewide this month after a two-year trial run at 20 selected schools. In its first three days, for instance, Hillsborough schools had tested just 57 students, Pinellas schools 109 and Hernando schools 503.

But in Pasco, many educators are jazzed about using the free, computerized examination as a way to better guide reading instruction for each student.

"This particular tool is to help us determine what needs to be taught ... and lets us do some instructional planning," said Rachel Powers, supervisor of elementary reading curriculum, differentiating it from the high-stakes, outcomes-oriented Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"We're here to meet the individual needs of each child," Lake Myrtle principal Kara McComeskey said. "That's what this assessment is going to help us do."

Students begin with a review of their reading - or in the case of most kindergartners, listening - comprehension skills. Unlike the FCAT, which is standardized, FAIR is geared to each child's expected abilities, based on his or her grade level and past FCAT and FAIR results.

Students who do well on the comprehension section do not necessarily have to take other sections. Those who struggle on the first part move on to two other parts, one that has students choose words that best complete a sentence based on context, and another that focuses on spelling.

Those additional tasks help teachers identify whether students are having trouble because of their ability to understand text, or because they cannot decipher the words in the selections.

After gathering all these data, students and teachers will get immediate results as to each child's reading level, chance of success on the FCAT for his or her grade level, and progress in all the reading skills required in Florida's academic standards.

"We're excited about the detail it will provide, particularly for secondary students, where there really hasn't been that type of information available," said Kevin Smith, high school reading specialist for Just Read, Florida!, a state agency that coordinates student reading programs.

Once teachers have these details, they can use several resources, including lesson plans, that the state has compiled to move students toward success. And that's not just for the lowest performing students.

The FAIR identifies strengths as well as weaknesses.

"We want to keep pushing our higher achieving students to go on and continue to be challenged," said Barbara Elzie, Just Read, Florida! deputy director. "They need challenges to continue to grow."

Using the test

One key component of FAIR is teachers' understanding how to use the information it generates. The state has conducted several training sessions - the biggest one being in Pasco at John Long Middle School - to begin that process.

Keri Allen, Lake Myrtle's literacy coach, is working with the staffers at her school to ensure that they can best tailor their reading lessons to each student, and then explain to parents how the system works. She noted that FAIR does not replace some of the other assessments that teachers have used to place their students into guided reading groups, but added that it does offer more consistency across schools and districts in ensuring that all students are evaluated similarly.

FAIR is not supposed to take the place of the FCAT, either. Because it is computerized for grades 3-12, though, it may be giving a glimpse into the future as the state still is pondering whether it can administer the FCAT online.

Michael Cloyd, supervisor of secondary reading curriculum for Pasco schools, acknowledged that using FAIR will take more time in the initial implementation than once educators get used to it. Afterward, he said, it should become second nature as schools gather an increasing amount of data to guide academic decisions.

"The data we're going to get out of this, I think, will be more valuable than anything we've put into it," Cloyd said.

The first round of FAIR testing ends in mid October. The next round is scheduled to start shortly after Thanksgiving.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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To learn more

Read all about the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading at www.fcrr.org/fair/index.htm.

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