Manatee FCAT scores paint puzzling picture

Florida's swift transition to tougher standardized tests and grading benchmarks is now complete with this year's final FCAT 2.0 scores coming out this week. The state Department of Education, which has been releasing results over the past three weeks, praised Tuesday's marks as topping expectations.

But overall Manatee County school district scores on reading and math for grades four through eight and science for grades five and eight fell short of statewide averages -- far too short in some cases.

At the same time, Lakewood Ranch and East Manatee schools bested the state mark, providing the district with a measure of success.

Sunshine State Standards grade achievement on five levels, with students scoring at Level 3 and higher considered to be proficient. Only 50 percent of Manatee's third- through eighth-graders earned proficiency marks in math compared with the statewide score of 57 percent. On the fifth-grade science test, Manatee fell a startling nine percentage points behind the state average, 42-51.

The overall low marks did not surprise Manatee's top school district administrators, Superintendent Tim McGonegal and Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Bob Gagnon, though both expressed disappointment. Disappointing, indeed.

But like the disparate East Manatee-district results on the new scores, previously released test scores add to the bipolar picture of the district. While third-graders fell behind the state on FCAT reading and math, high school students bested the state on end-of-course geometry and biology tests. On the end-of-course Algebra 1 test administered in grades seven through 12, Manatee students topped the state mark at every grade level.

While most of Manatee's Title 1 schools, where more than half the student population fall below the poverty level, face testing challenges, Prine Elementary matched the state on the percentage of fifth-graders proficient in reading, at 56.

The district should not be judged too harshly, though clearly improvements are critical. The top tier schools should be emulated.

The school district's instructional and organizational overhaul launched only a few months ago holds the promise of stronger student achievement -- and that cannot come quick enough.

The new "Common Core State Standards" are designed to ensure all students learn the same basic skills at all grade levels. The Manatee school district began transitioning to the new statewide standards just last month, and early indications show teacher support -- a welcome sign given the intense backlash against FCAT.

Manatee will begin implementing the national standards in kindergarten and first grade in the coming school year with complete transition through grade 12 by 2015. Language arts and math will be the initial focus as mastery of the two disciplines are the foundation for learning others.

The core standards are also intended to diminish the prospects that students are learning material in order to score well on tests -- one of the major criticisms of FCAT. Teaching to the test robs students of a complete education.

The uproar over FCAT continues as a wave of school districts across the state consider adopting resolutions urging the state to reexamine public school accountability in light of the aggressive and poorly communicated transition to tougher tests and grading.

This mirrors a national campaign against high-stakes standardized tests that puts a great deal of pressure on students and teachers. Accountability can measure student achievement without being an onerous exercise that ultimately backfires and detracts from education. The shift to a common core curriculum should alleviate those circumstances.