MANATEE -- The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has been driving school policy in the Manatee County School District.
"We have been teaching to test and focusing on the FCAT because we had to," deputy superintendent of instruction Diana Greene said to the Manatee County School Board at a workshop Thursday. "It makes a lot of decision for teachers and children.
"For teachers, it impacts their employment status. It determined if students were allowed to take an elective or if they had to take intensive reading, and if they graduated on time."
Greene said the district cannot ignore the importance of students being fully prepared, which is why the district is implementing early release Wednesdays, otherwise known as professional development Wednesdays, once a month.
The goal is to improve 2013-14 test scores and prepare teachers for implementation of Common Core standards for the 2014-15 school year.
Common Core standards, which have been adopted or at least partially adopted in 45 states, are meant to raise academic standards for reading and math and bring curricula from different states into alignment. The standards involve critical-thinking skills.
Greene said the district needs to figure out where its schools are in the process.
In 2011, 19 schools in the district were A schools, 17 were B schools and 11 were C schools. Only two schools were D schools and only one school failed.
This year, only seven schools were A schools and 17 were D and F schools.
Greene said changes at the state level are partially to blame for the precipitous drop in grades.
In 2012, the state changed to FCAT 2.0. Greene said the test was the same, but the grading was more rigorous. Greene said students need to be prepared for Common
Core to be even harder.
School board member Barbara Harvey said increased standards will affect all grade levels, but she has faith in improvement.
"I am glad to see we are addressing critical thinking," Harvey said.
Greene said non-Title 1 schools are performing at the state average, but the goal for the 2013-14 school year is to improve all school performances.
"We want to see non-Title 1 schools outperform the state average, andTitle 1 schools to get upto the state average, so we are all moving up," Greene said.
Greene said the maingoal for high schools isto reduce the amount ofstudent testing at levelone for reading. The state considers level three proficient.
"The goal for 2013-14 is to have all A to C schools," Greene said. "That is a big jump."
For professional development Wednesdays. Greene said principals and assistant principals will delivertraining to teachers withguidance from districtexecutive directors of elementary, middle and high schools and instructional specialists.
Executive director of elementary schools Scott Boyes said the instructional time once a month will benefit teachers and their students.
"I absolutely love thetime devoted to teachersand getting everyoneon the same level," Boyes said.
Greene said each monthly session will run about one hour to an hour and 20 minutes.
"This is for CommonCore implementation," Greene said. "It will not be tofocus on the here and now, but to be prepared for next year."
Teachers in training will assess each other's portfolios and record-keeping tools, developing different models for reading and math instruction and look at the content of Common Core Standards for their grade levels.
The training will also include more in-depth exercises for specific teaching subjects.
Greene said all schools will write improvement plans, which they will share with the executive directors of elementary, middle and high schools.
The plan also includes monthly meetings with principals and Greene.
"There will be monthly and quarterly review for students, just as we will have monthly and quarterly budget reviews," Greene said.
Greene said schools grading A, B or C are not required to meet monthly.
School board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter said she expects regular updates on how training is going.
"I hope to have a regular status progress report so the board can hear what is going on," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said early release Wednesdays progress reports should be an "ongoing series."
"We will carry on the conversation at another workshop," Carpenter said.
The first early release Wednesday isSept. 4.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.