Group: FCAT last hope for struggling black students
Published: Monday, March 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 29, 2004 at 11:28 p.m.
While some black parents plan to go to Tallahassee next week to protest the FCAT as unfair to their children, another group is quietly spreading a different message: The test is the last hope for students left behind by previous education policies.
"If we didn't have FCAT, we may not have known how bad they were doing," says the Rev. Lorenzo Thomas, a member of the SaraMana Black Republican Club.
In Southwest Florida, much like the rest of the state, black students' FCAT scores lag behind those of white students.
In Sarasota and Manatee counties, nearly three-quarters of black students aren't reading at grade level, according to scores reported to the U.S. Department of Education. In Charlotte County, it's close to two-thirds.
Scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test are used to determine whether students pass from third to fourth grade, and in high school, whether they graduate.
The disparity between the performance of minority and white students has caused a furor in the state. The NAACP filed a civil rights complaint to stop the state from using the scores to hold students back until the gap between white and minority students is eliminated.
The scores are troubling, Thomas admits, but he says they aren't evidence of an unfair test.
The only way to make sure black students get an equal education is to know how far they have to come, Thomas said.
"We are trying to enlighten the African-American community that those who are marching are against improving the education of all black kids," said Frances Rice of Sarasota, treasurer of the group.
A different FCAT story
While critics of the FCAT point to the disparity in scores between white student and minorities, state officials tout figures showing the gap shrinking.
Since 1998, the percentage of black fourth-graders reading satisfactorily jumped 18 percentage points in 2003 from 23 percent to 41 percent.
White students' scores jumped less than 10 percentage points during that time, but far more white students are reading well.
Last year, 73 percent of white students were reading on grade level, compared with 65 percent in 1998.
This week, members of the SaraMana Black Republican group invited Monica Hayes, director of Equity Access for the Florida Department of Education, to a forum to talk about the test, which is scheduled for next week.
She found a sympathetic audience.
Hayes, a 5-foot-tall firecracker described as a "country preacher," walked the aisle of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Bradenton, telling a side of FCAT that she said is rarely heard.
People talk about how kids can't graduate because of the test, she said, but they rarely mention that students get five chances to take the test, which is written based on what they're supposed to know in 10th grade.
If they don't know it as a senior, they're two years behind, she said.
Hayes soothed a mother who didn't want to hold back her daughter, who was failing kindergarten. As she took the woman's hands, she talked to her softly.
"It's not about your pride," Hayes said.
Better that her child catch up now, she said. "You make her proud of her effort."
Vivian Fehr of Sarasota said before the meeting that she had heard parents complain about how the test was unfair, how it had kept children from graduating.
"It seems kind of ridiculous to me when you hear all this anger and you hear all this protest," Fehr said.
She said her own children, who attend Sarasota High School and Brentwood Elementary, haven't had trouble with the FCAT.
But parents whose students are behind need to know, she said.
"So don't try to blame Governor Bush for trying to equalize things," Fehr said.
An age-old inequity
Walter R. Tschinkel, a Florida State University biology professor who has analyzed the FCAT and written articles critical of it, said that instead of equalizing, the governor's education policies merely point out an age-old inequity: students who come from poor homes tend to do poorly.
Tschinkel analyzed scores by race and compared students who qualify for free lunch with those who don't. When he focused on poor students, he saw the same performance pattern in white and minority students.
Tschinkel said the state doesn't acknowledge that some students come to school knowing less than others and therefore aren't likely to be at the same place in third grade.
When they can't pass the FCAT that year, they fail.
Manatee County School Board member Barbara Harvey has the same complaint about the test.
"FCAT has some real advantages; however the way we're using the results is most inappropriate," she said.
Zenobia Davis, a member of the Republican club, tutored high school seniors in her hometown of New York City, trying to prepare them for the end-of-high school Regents Exam.
"It's like banging your head against the wall," she said. "How can you teach a senior in high school about mathematics, something they should have known in elementary school?"
Davis said she realized then that holding back students who aren't ready, as the FCAT does now, is the only way to ensure that they get an education.
"By holding them back, they're doing them a favor," she said.
Still, there's one thing parents on both sides of the FCAT issue agree on: the schools and parents have to do a better job of educating their children.
Three years after school officials and members of the Sarasota-based Coalition of African-American Leadership drafted a plan to close the achievement gap between black and white students, things haven't improved as much as they had hoped.
"I'm sad (to) report that the picture is not too rosy for our children," the Rev. Willie Holley, chairman of the coalition and president of the Sarasota County NAACP branch, recently told Newtown residents during a community meeting. "It's an ongoing struggle."
Holley said the coalition will address residents' concerns about the FCAT and other educational issues with the School Board. And he called on the community to support them.
"It's time for us as parents to get actively involved," he said.
Laura Green is a staff writer for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota. Herald-Tribune staff writer Patty Allen-Jones contributed to this report.
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