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FCAT Foes Lead Charge In Orlando

By Lori Horvitz | Sentinel Staff Writer

May 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

State lawmakers leading the push to suspend high-stakes testing came to Central Florida on Friday with petitions to sign and a fiery message for Gov. Jeb Bush: Stop using the exams to determine who gets to graduate and who has to repeat a grade.

"I believe in high standards, but I do not believe high-stakes testing has a place in Florida schools at this time," Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, told more than 200 people at Howard Middle School in Orlando.

Wilson was among a group of activists and politicians -- including Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who arranged Friday's meeting -- who gave impassioned speeches on the damage they say the FCAT is inflicting on thousands of students.

They are threatening to boycott some of Florida's biggest industries -- such as orange juice, the state lottery and tourism spots -- if Bush refuses to comply with their demands.

The governor has defended the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but he is also supporting a bill that would provide an escape hatch for seniors who cannot pass the graduation exam.

"It's really unfortunate that they would want to hurt Florida's economy when for the first time we are seeing rising student achievement regardless of a student's background," said Jill Bratina, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office.

The possible boycott was announced earlier this month after state officials announced that more than 43,000 third-graders could be held back and more than 13,000 12th-graders would be ineligible for diplomas because they had failed the FCAT.

Critics contend the test is posing an unfair obstacle to promising high school students, particularly minorities,who have hopes of going to college or joining the military.

"You are leaving our children behind," said Orange School Board member Kat Gordon, intending her comments for the governor. She noted that nearly all of the failing schools statewide -- including 11 in Orange -- are predominantly black.

It did not take long for Gordon and the other speakers to rile the crowd of parents, students, teachers, child advocates and religious leaders. In what often resembled scenes from a church revival, many in the crowd jumped out of their seats, shouted words of support and applauded.

Orlando City Council member Ernest Page said the FCAT should be renamed "the Florida Catastrophic Asinine Test."

"Those who are astutely aware of racism might think this is another attempt to destroy black schools," Page said. "The test is culturally biased. It's nonsensical. It's prejudicial."

There was also tearful testimony after Siplin invited people in the audience to ask questions and voice their opinions. More than a dozen people lined the aisle of Howard's auditorium for their turn at the microphone.

Myriam Rodriguez, a biology teacher at Colonial High School, was desperate to find help for her 18-year-old son, Kalef Torres, an Orange County senior who has been unable to pass the reading exam.

Torres, who attends University High, arrived from Puerto Rico less than two years ago and is still learning English. He is an honors student with a B-plus average and dreams of studying business administration at Valencia Community College.

Gordon told Rodriguez to keep fighting for her son's future, and Siplin instructed Rodriguez to call his office. He said he wants to put her in touch with a South Florida attorney who has talked about suing the state on behalf of other students in the same situation as her son.

"It's been a complete nightmare for my son," Rodriguez said after talking to the crowd. "You never expect this to happen to your child."

As part of a special legislative session Bush has called for mid-June, he wants lawmakers to consider a bill that would loosen the state's FCAT requirements for entrance into community college.

The proposal would allow teens to earn diplomas by posting relatively low scores on other standardized exams, including the SAT and ACT college-placement tests.

The bill also would allow students without high school diplomas to go straight into community college and work toward their associate's degree.

At the moment, those who enter community college without a regular or equivalent diploma are limited generally to vocational and technical programs.

Alternatives to FCAT

Nearly 13,000 high-school seniors have failed to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for 10th grade, a requirement for receiving a standard diploma. While some may be poor students, others are struggling with English or may have had difficulty taking the test, despite multiple tries. Gov. Jeb Bush proposes that lawmakers approve legislation that would:

  • Let high-school seniors earn a regular diploma by scoring well enough on other standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT.
  • Speed up a study by the Department of Education on determining alternatives to the FCAT.

How the tests are graded

Reading and math scores

The reading and math sections of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test are graded on a scale of 100 to 500.

The state uses five achievement levels to describe how students perform on the test. In the chart, the scores are given as a school average.

The scores include the results for all students, including disabled children and those learning to speak English.

Many of thosestudents' scores will be factored out when the state determines each school's grade next month.

Here are what the different levels mean for students:

  • Level 1: Below grade level. A student shows little or no understanding of the material on the test.
  • Level 2: Below grade level. A student has limited success on the test.
  • Level 3: At grade level. A student answers many questions correctly, but has a lot of trouble with the most difficult material.
  • Level 4: Above grade level. A student answers most of the questions correctly but has some trouble with the most difficult concepts.
  • Level 5: Well above grade level. A student answers most of the questions correctly and grasps the most challenging concepts.

The charts here give the percentage of those students at each school who scored at Level 3 or above.

Writing scores

The writing test is graded from to 1 to 6, with six being the highest score.

The charts here give the percentage of children at each school who scored at Level 3 and above.

Science scores

The science test, new this year, is graded on a scale of 100 to 500. No passing score has been determined, but as a measure of performance, the state is releasing an average of individual scores at each school. Results from 2003 will be used to determine performance levels for future years.

SOURCES: Florida Department of Education and Sentinel research.

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