Science on FCAT worries schools

Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 11:31 p.m.

Teachers and students at Port Charlotte High School cheered last year when they finally raised their school grade to a B and shed their embarrassing status as the county's only C school.

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Eighth grader Cory Bennett raises his hand to answer questions from language arts teacher Cara Reynolds during an FCAT preparation class at Port Charlotte Middle School on Feb. 20.

JENNA ISAACSON/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Now they are in danger of slipping back to a C, not because they stopped trying but because state officials changed the criteria.

This year marks the beginning of a frustrating and costly transition period for many schools across the state.

For the first time, the state grade calculation for each school will include science scores and the lowest math scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Last year, only about one in three students passed the science FCAT, which is given in grades five, eight and 11.

Unless those scores improve over last year, 19 schools in Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee counties could drop a grade, according to a projection by the state Department of Education.

"It's a long process to make gains and then, just when you're starting an upward trend in things like reading, now science is in the mix," said Steve Dionisio, Port Charlotte High School's principal.

And it's not just a grade. It's money.

Falling a grade means being ineligible for the state's $100-per-student reward. Going up a grade at Port Charlotte High School would have meant an additional $212,500 from the state.

If a school falls into a pattern of D's or F's, the state can step in and replace the principal and overhaul the curriculum.

In general, high-scoring schools are expected to weather the storm and hang onto their top grades, while those that typically struggle face setbacks, a projection that feeds criticism that the state grading system punishes struggling schools.

Still, many of those principals are hopeful that extra tutoring this year in math and science will head off the dark forecasts.

"They have a whole new group of kids this year in science, so anything could happen," said Jackie Speake, a curriculum specialist who has been working with Charlotte County elementary schools in danger of dropping a grade.

No time for science?

Students have been taking the science test since 2003, but their science test scores did not count toward the school's grade.

Improving scores on the science portion means finding more time to teach it, teachers say.

With a state-mandated 90 minutes of reading every day, and an additional 30 minutes for poor readers, there is little time for science. At most elementary schools, science is not taught every day.

Sea Breeze Elementary School in Manatee County, an A school projected to receive its first B, found a creative way around that dilemma this year. Students have started reading science books instead of fiction during reading time, and they visit the science lab during fine-arts rotation.

Principal Jackie West said she and her staff are still concerned about the grade dropping, partly because parents make judgments based on the grade.

"We have taken it seriously, but we take it seriously every year and, quite frankly, we don't know if one year could change it," West said.

Other schools are trying to beat the clock by teaching science through extracurricular activities such as science fairs. Because of that push, elementary school submissions in science fairs climbed in Sarasota and Charlotte counties this year.

Tweaking the curriculum

Secondary schools, where science is taught every day for the most part, are adjusting the curriculum so students are better prepared for the math and science concepts tested on the FCAT.

High schools in Charlotte County, for example, recently made it mandatory for freshmen to take a science overview course. Before, students were allowed to choose their science classes, meaning a student could take three years of biology and be unprepared for other topics on the science test.

Also starting this year in Charlotte County, low-level math students will be required to take a year of geometry in their sophomore year to prepare them for the geometry section of the math FCAT. Before, those students took two years of algebra with only a geometry primer before the test.

Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee county school districts have developed district-wide tests with questions aligned to the FCAT, so teachers can see where students are lacking and make changes in the lessons.

Usually about 20 to 25 questions long, the mini-exams are developed by teams of teachers at the district and school level.

"We do give a lot of assessments, but that's one way to get information about students," said Sheryl Kurtin, a math specialist for Sarasota County schools.

"Teachers really need some hard data so they know where to instruct, especially with math, which is so wide that without assessments, it's hard to know what skill is needed."

Students at Tuttle and Booker elementary schools in Sarasota are given math tests every nine weeks and then divided among teachers who drill them on the concepts they don't understand.

Now it's wait-and-see time.

East Elementary School in Charlotte County, an A school where just 32 percent of fifth-graders passed the science exam last year, is projected to drop to a B.

"I won't apologize to anybody if we don't get an A," said Principal Jack Stroup. "We're working our tails off."

A shifting focus

This is the fourth time the state has changed the school grading formula since the test was first given in 1998 and school grades were assigned.

It is the first time a new subject, science, has been added to the mix. Next year, writing scores will count toward the school grade. But writing is considered one of the easiest FCAT subjects. Students have performed the worst in science.

"Science has not been an emphasized area because we've been focusing on reading and math," said Susan Puchalla, a curriculum specialist for the Sarasota County school district. "Good, bad or indifferently, FCAT science ensures as a state we will find our way back there."

While math has always counted toward the school grade, this year schools will also be required to show improvement in the lowest-scoring 25 percent of math students, similar to the way reading scores are calculated.

To improve math and science education long-term, Gov. Charlie Crist last week announced two statewide initiatives: the creation of a math and science office within the Department of Education, and a $2 million state grant for the math and science research center at Florida State University, which will be focused partly on researching new teaching strategies to be used in schools. But that does nothing to aid schools being graded this year.

A record number of schools earned As last year, but not a single school is projected to boost its grade to an A this year. Still, state officials say this year they expect schools will take the science test more seriously and so some will likely buck the projection.

"Last year, schools knew science was not part of the school grade calculation, so it's kind of difficult to assume we'll see the same type of results this year," said Juan Copa, director of the state education office of evaluation and reporting.

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