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  1. The Education Gradebook

As expected, district analysis shows test scores tied heavily to socioeconomics

Published Oct. 7, 2015

Pasco County School District officials did their best last week to downplay preliminary Florida Standards Assessment results, citing several ways they felt the data fell short.

Among their concerns, the information did not have any point of comparison, because the tests and the standards had changed from a year earlier. Also, they noted that the numbers only compared students to one another, with no connection to academic expectations.

"I'm kind of ambivalent," said superintendent Kurt Browning, who has urged the state not to issue school grades based on the outcomes.

Still, he had his research department project where schools might land in the system that the Department of Education intends to implement. District officials used Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's proposed "cut score" model, which won't be approved until winter, to estimate percentages of students at grade level, by school and test.

Without learning gains available, the results focused on proficiency only. And perhaps to little surprise, the performance correlated heavily to socioeconomics.

Testing experts have said that children from lower-income homes tend to do worse on standardized tests than their more affluent peers, because of experiences outside school.

At the elementary level, the Pasco schools where less than a third of the students projected at grade level were those that historically have scored low, such as Lacooochee, Cox and Gulf Highlands. Those expected to have 70 percent or more considered "proficient" were located primarily in the upper middle-class areas, such as Trinity Oaks, Sand Pine and Odessa.

Similar patterns could be found at the county's middle and high schools.

Educators often look for schools that outperform or under-perform their expectations to use as examples for what works and what doesn't. Those could be found in Chester Taylor Elementary's fourth-grade language arts projected results, for example, and Sunray Elementary's fourth-grade math.

In both, students appeared to well exceed the passing rates of other grade levels in their schools and at similar campuses.

School leaders hope to use some of this information to improve teaching and learning, although they still lack many details. The state is not expected to set the scores needed to earn a Level 1 (lowest) through 5 on the test until January.

By then, the 2016 exams will be just around the corner. The writing test begins in late February.

OPTING OUT? District leaders' recent disdain for the current Florida testing and accountability system has gotten some parents wondering whether their kids might have more leeway for opting out next year.

One mom put it to Browning this way:

"I'd like to ask you what the county protocols will be for students that opt out of the FSA? I understand the law states "participation" is mandatory, I'd just like to know what action can/will be taken against students that opt out of the exam(s)."

As much as Browning says he wants to see the system changed, he hasn't yet changed his "There is no opt-out provision" stance.

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Still, the district has recognized that students might "minimally participate" by accepting the tests and refusing to complete them. District officials told teachers to have kids who refuse the test sit quietly during the session.

If they become disruptive, that would become a disciplinary situation. And if their parents arrive at school to withdraw their kids for the testing, well, there's no written policy for that.

Browning has been known, though, to quietly remind principals that parents have that right, too.

CLASSROOM SUPPLIES: Some Pasco County teachers are saying they don't want the $250 the state gives them to offset personal expenses for classroom supplies. It's their response to a district memo requiring them to scan and submit all receipts associated with their purchases.

If they don't turn in the receipts by April 1, the money would be deducted from their paycheck and sent to their school's advisory committee account instead.

"So much for (the union) negotiating a reduction in paperwork!" one angry teacher said.

The upshot, according to the school district, has been an unexpected request.

"Some teachers have asked if they can reject the money," employee relations director Betsy Kuhn said.

The district has created an opt-out for teachers. So far, the choice has been little used, Kuhn said. But the inquiries started coming late last week and again on Monday.

The district made the requirement to meet IRS reporting rules.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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