MANATEE -- Manatee County students face another year of high stakes testing, and possible grade retention, as they gear up to take the FCAT for possibly the last time before a new assessment rolls in with Common Core in 2015.
The move toward Common Core, a national standard, will abandon the current Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, which relies heavily on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The FCAT testing has been used to determine whether a student advances to the next grade level as well as an entire school's performance.
Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instructional services, said at the Feb. 11 school board meeting that the school district has retained more than 300 third-graders this year.
Palm View Elementary instructional coach Dameon Headings said grade retention based on test results is a point of concern for him and other teachers at Palm View.
"Research shows retention is not best for kids," Headings said. "We have to make sure we can provide for them."
Nancy High, principal of Nolan Middle School, said retention based on testing has not been as crucial for middle school students.
"Students in middle school are not retained based on testing, but on course completion," High said.
Course completion is based on a student's performance throughout the year. Middle school students still need to pass the FCAT, and eighth-graders must complete a science portion of the test.
Based on last year's FCAT reading scores, the state required five Manatee County elementary schools to add an extra hour of reading in
struction to their school day for the 2013-14 school year. Those schools are Samoset, Daughtrey, Oneco, Palmetto and Orange Ridge-Bullock.
Manatee students also struggled with the writing portion of the FCAT 2.0. The average score for fourth-graders was a 3.2 out of a possible six.
According to teachers and principals in Manatee County schools, preparation for the FCAT begins the first day of school.
Headings said the school uses data to identify students' strengths and weaknesses.
"Identifying what students are expected to know begins on day one," Headings said.
Headings said that is done through regular testing administered by the school district. Students take a test, or some formal assessment, after every unit.
"We are able to break down every question and see what percent of the class got each question right or wrong," Headings said. "We can go even further and look at the questions themselves and see why they may have been missed. Sometimes it's a matter of the wording in the questions."
Headings said he makes the most of testing as a way to get to know his students' study styles.
"I always say teachers should know everything about their students, even their shoe size," Headings said with a laugh. "If you truly want to make a move, you have to know what performance data is telling you. That is not always an easy chore."
Last year, Palm View Elementary was one of the eight district schools to receive an F grade from the Florida Department of Education. School grades are largely related to FCAT scores.
Headings said a big change this year is using class time to its full potential and making sure students understand the material at the end of the school day, even if that means re-testing.
"We can't control what happens at home, but we can control what happens within the our walls of the classroom," Headings said.
Angela Essig, principal of Palm View Elementary, said the school reteaches the standards students struggle with on the tests and assessments, then re-test the students.
"The state defines what students need to know," Essig said.
Common Core coming
Headings said teachers' current concern are about what standards will be used when Common Core is implemented in 2015. The state opened a bidding process for assessments in December, and a decision on which test to use is expected to be made in March.
"Right now, it's up in the air, " Headings said. "We are bridging the gap between the current standards and what is coming next in Common Core."
While teachers have to follow the state standards, Headings said there are other ways to make a difference.
"I am against teaching straight out of a book," Headings said. "My job is to find a way they will understand. If we do a good job of teaching the standards, it doesn't matter what test the students take. If we've done our job, they should succeed."
While teachers are passionate about "out-of-the-box" teaching methods in the classroom, they agree that they are still, to some extent, bound by the state standards.
Even with the implementation of new standards through Common Core, Headings said he does not see an end to high stakes testing.
"We will always have it, just under different names," Headings said. "But do we put it as an end all do all? Or as another opportunity for students to show themselves and others what they can do? They are the future citizens of the world, who we want to have the skills to think critically."
Essig said the FCAT influences a more heavy emphasis on non-fiction reading in the classroom.
"We have utilized over $15,000 in Title I funds to purchase non-fiction books for every classroom library," Essig said. "Non-fiction reading is important because 50 percent or more of the FCAT is informational text."
Another challenge is making sure the material that will be tested is covered adequately before testing.
"In a class of 20 kids, you have to make decisions for both the excelling students and the struggling ones," Headings said.
To avoid a disconnect between what students learn and how they perform on tests, Headings said teachers should create a classroom atmosphere that mimics test day in advance.
"During testing, it's different because their desks are separated and there's no talking. There's time limits," Headings said. "We should let them know our expectation is for their very best, and work with students to help them work through test anxiety ahead of time."
The school district provides the program Successmaker Lab to all Manatee County schools, which allows students to practice reading and math FCAT-style questions at their grade level.
Elementary schools also offer writing clubs. At Palm View Elementary, Essig, Headings, the assistant principal intern and a guidance counselor go to fourth-grade classrooms two or three times a week to assist students in narrative writing to prepare for FCAT writes.
Myra Russel, the principal of Gene Witt Elementary, said the school does takes a "plain and simple" approach and does not do special preparation for the FCAT. Gene Witt was an A school last year.
"We don't do anything different," Russel said. "We teach throughout the year. It's not anything out of the ordinary. It's just good teaching and helping kids do the best they can."
High agreed with Russel.
"It's the same benchmarks that are taught in the classroom, so it's business as usual," High said. "We are teaching standards and providing reinforcement and remediation to students that need it."
The FCAT writing test is scheduled for Feb. 25-26 for fourth, eighth and 10th grades.
FCAT 2.0 testing for third grade through 10th grade is scheduled for April 14 through May 2.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.