Alachua Co. schools 25th in ranking based on FCAT


Published: Monday, January 23, 2012 at 11:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 at 10:50 p.m.

The state Department of Education on Monday released, at the request of Gov. Rick Scott, a ranking of school districts based on FCAT scores, with Alachua County Public Schools coming in 25th out of 67 counties, according to DOE data.

While other state superintendents lamented the rankings as an incomplete picture, district officials said they wondered why the state decided to release the list, which is the first of its kind in the state.



A quarter of a district's score, used for the ranking, hinges on the most struggling students making learning gains. Another 25 percent is based on the learning gains of all students and the remaining 50 percent is divided equally among student performance on the reading, math, science and writing portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Scott requested the list as another way to "make it easier for parents to assess school district performance," according to a DOE news release. Scott lauded the rankings as a measure of the results of taxpayer investments.

Superintendents didn't feel that way, with several counties in the dark about the rankings when news of the list leaked Friday evening. Some said it provided an incomplete picture, because it doesn't take into account socioeconomic makeup and diversity, factors that can affect student performance.

According to reports, Scott's office will take those factors into account in the future.

Neighboring Gilchrist County, which has 2,700 students, was ranked fifth.

Other neighboring districts and their rankings include: Dixie, 12th, Clay 13th, Union 19th, Levy 41st, Marion 44th, Columbia 48th, Suwannee 55th, Putnam 56th, Bradford 58th.

Superintendent Don Thomas of Gilchrist County schools said all of the county's schools have been designated high performing for the past 10 years. To be high-performing, a school must earn a state school grade of an A or B.

"I think this shows that teacher support is there and has been for years," he said.

Thomas also credited his district as "progressive," citing a merit pay plan that has been in use for a number of years as well as the "Time on Task" policy.

That policy limits distractions, such as parties and noninstructional activities, from learning time, he said.

Focusing on test scores is not the objective, Thomas said.

"It's about the state setting these levels and if we don't perform and don't move our kids up to this level, they won't graduate," he said.

Alachua County Superintendent Dan Boyd said he wasn't clear why the state chose FCAT scores to rank the districts, although it was comparable to the district grades doled out by the state each year.

Compared to districts in the top 10, Alachua County fell short in the percentage of students passing the FCAT. Students must make a grade of 3 on a scale of 5 to be considered on grade level.

For example, Sumter County, which is ranked 10th, outperformed Alachua on the percentage of students passing the FCAT in reading, math and writing by at least 5 percentage points. Sumter County's percentage of struggling students making learning gains in reading is one percentage point higher than Alachua County.

Alachua County schools have adopted the gradual-release model of teaching to aid students on the FCAT, said Diana Lagotic, director of elementary curriculum.

Gradual release requires teachers to model their thoughts first, then the class works on the problem together before the teacher allows the students to work through it own their own.

Lagotic said the district also is working to ensure students are developing reading and writing skills across different subject matter, including science texts.

Area education leaders were caught off guard when the rankings were released, with several principals and district administrators unaware the DOE had released such a list.

Principal Jeff Charbonnet at Eastside High School said his school has embraced a "college-going culture," translating into higher expectations and higher student performance.

"We're confident all of our students will pass the math FCAT, but historically our challenge has been the reading FCAT," he said. "If we can get students reading at grade level regularly, that will build vocabulary and comprehension skills and give students what they need to pass the test."

Charbonnet said a guidance counselor, reading teachers and the district language arts supervisor meet with parents of struggling students to outline what must be done so they will pass the FCAT.

Like Eastside, Buchholz High School puts an emphasis on mentoring groups to help students perform well, said Principal Vicente Perez. One such club rewards ninth-grade students in the lowest quartile with a college trip if they post a 3.0 semester grade-point average.

Charbonnet said it's not surprising the state chose to rank the districts in an official list.

"I think Americans love rankings," he said. "Wherever you look you see things ranked from mundane things like sports teams and movies."

Looking at single-year rankings can be disingenuous, said Newberry High School Principal Shane Andrew.

"In any year-to-year comparison, a lot of things change — students change, teachers change, school leadership changes," he said. "Let's look at the trend and look at which districts are consistent."

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