Manatee County school district officials brace community for FCAT shock

MANATEE -- With students bracing for the most intense FCAT testing period of the year next week, Manatee school officials are joining their colleagues across the state in trying to prepare parents and students for potentially shocking changes to the way the pivotal tests are administered and scored.

The test itself has been made tougher, and its scoring standards have been raised to make it harder for kids to earn a passing level of 3. Other changes include greater inclusion of the scores of students with challenges like language barriers and disabilities.

The changes mean not only that fewer students are likely to pass the test, which measures proficiency in reading, math, science and writing for third through 10th grades, but also that more schools will receive lower grades.

Students must receive a passing FCAT score to advance to the next grade.

"Everybody's worried about this," says Schools Supt. Tim McGonegal. "Teachers are worried about it when I talk to them. It's good to raise standards and have high accountability, but when you go from raising the bar to making that bar so high it's a wall, you're going to get some kids who just aren't going to be able to climb that wall."

While Manatee County hasn't yet computed how many more of its students are likely to fail the FCAT because of its higher standards, statewide officials estimate that 15,000 more 10th-

graders will likely not pass the new test with its tougher passing scores.

Districts throughout Florida are predicting significant jumps in the numbers of "D" and "F" schools along with drops in the number of "A" and "B" schools.

Manatee County, for example, is predicting that its number of "A" schools will drop from 22 to 10; "B" schools will drop from 19 to 10; "C" schools will jump from 14 to 24; "D" schools will jump from three to nine; and "F" schools will increase from one to six.

The changes are due to raising passing FCAT scores, approved by the state Board of Education in December, and also changes in school grade calculations approved by the state board in February.

The changes also are difficult to explain because they involve transitioning from an old grading scale of 500 to a new one of 298 to 302. Christine Fiorrito-Sket, of the parent activist organization Fund Education Now, says one point on the new scale is equivalent to 18 points on the old scale.

Fiorrito-Sket also objects to the new, tougher version of the FCAT, saying it tends to discourage "outside the box" thinking.

Duval, Lee, Palm Beach and Pasco school districts all have released information warning of the impact of the FCAT changes. Duval County's superintendent warned parents in a letter that the changes will lead to not only a drop in school grades, but increased costs for more remedial classes and possibly the elimination of elective classes to make room for additional remedial classes.

Likewise, Manatee County's Director of Elementary Schools Joe Stokes has prepared a letter he is encouraging teachers and principals to share with parents.

"(In) grades three, four and five, students will definitely see an increased number of level one and two scores," Stokes writes. "This is concerning to teachers and parents because we want students to score at level three or higher."

Stokes also warns that schools could see their letter grades drop "even though their performance could be the same or even better than last year."

Because the scoring changes were just instituted in December, McGonegal said Manatee and other districts have had little chance to take any major steps to address the changes. "There's no magic bullet," he said.

But Stokes said Manatee school officials are "working on this all the time." Some schools are offering Saturday classes, and others were offering fewer elective classes after the winter holiday to focus on test preparation. Reading, writing and math are being built more prominently into the entire curriculum, he said, and more focus is being given on complex and inferential reading, which are high-level skills emphasized in the FCAT tests.

Stokes also cited a program called SuccessMaker, which equips teachers to more closely track individual students and their proficiency in specific areas. The program was first used at five low-performing schools last year and is now being used at all 17 of the district's Title I schools, which are schools with a high concentration of low-income students.

"You can be criticized as an educator for teaching to the test, and you also want to teach to the whole child," Stokes said. "So we're definitely looking for a little bit of balance. But to say we don't feel the pressure to try and perform well on the FCAT wouldn't be the case. We definitely do feel the pressure."

Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Or follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.