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FCAT: Thousands of third-graders at risk of being held back

About 9,000 South Florida third-graders are at risk of being held back because they failed Florida’s reading exam, according to results released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

That includes some 3,500 students in Broward County Public Schools and more than 5,600 students in Miami-Dade.

The closely watched FCAT scores are critical. Besides third-grade promotions, the results influence the state-issued letter grades for schools and teacher evaluations.

South Florida parents will learn their children’s individual scores in the next week or so.

For thousands who didn’t pass, there will be other ways for them to show they are ready for fourth grade.

About the same number of students failed the test last year in Dade; less than 3,000 were held back because they passed an alternate exam, took a summer reading camp or got another exemption, according to district administrators.

Education administrators and district leaders have warned that tougher FCAT standards will mean more students will fail and that letter grades for schools will likely drop. This is the first time students are judged on a tougher grading system, which the state Board of Education approved in December.

Thursday’s results follow a fiasco last week, when so many fourth-graders failed the writing exam that the state board lowered the passing grade at an emergency meeting.

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said Thursday it’s important to anchor retention efforts in third grade rather than later on. “The earlier we can start, the better,” he said.

Statewide, the test scores indicate about 34,000 third-graders — or 18 percent — are at risk of being held back. That number is expected to drop significantly, Robinson said, because of available exemptions.

With the tougher grading, state education administrators expected 57 percent of Florida third-graders to pass the reading exam and 56 percent to pass the math exam.

The actual results were on par: 56 percent of third-graders passed the reading with a score of 3 or better. On math, 58 percent passed. “We’re seeing the numbers point in the right direction,” Robinson said.

South Florida students performed on par or slightly better than their peers statewide.

In Miami-Dade, 53 percent of third-grade students passed the reading exam and 60 percent passed the math exam.

In Broward, 56 percent of third-grade students passed the reading and 59 percent passed the math.

State Board of Education Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez said he was still assessing the results and wanted to review scores for certain students, such as those who are still learning English. “Generally speaking, it appears the scores coming out are in line with what was anticipated,” he said.

Sandy Severin-Joseph, who teaches third grade at Carol City Elementary, knew the standards were changing, but was told there were a lot of “unknowns.”

She expected the test would be difficult for her students, who face many challenges at home and many of whom are learning English. Her toughest challenge was identifying what grade-level material was appropriate for her students. “They may be on paper in the third grade, but they may not be ready for third-grade curriculum,” she said.

At Carol City Elementary, 9 percent of third-graders passed the reading exam while 37 percent passed the math test with a 3 or better out of 5, according to the state results.

Robinson acknowledged it can be confusing for parents and students to compare this year’s results to last year’s. His department plans to give districts a letter for parents to explain changes along with report cards. “It’s no way a manipulation of the figures. It’s an adjustment of how we grade the FCAT,” he said.

Still, if both year’s third-grade test results are graded on the new scale, Miami-Dade students showed improvement, according to the district’s analysis. For third-grade, the passing rate for reading edged up a percentage point, while statewide it slipped slightly. In math, a greater percentage of Miami-Dade students passed the math exam than students statewide and than students in Palm Beach and Hillsborough.

That’s the good news for students and teachers.

But the good news won’t translate in the state-issued school grades, slated for release in July.

The rules for school letter grades are also tougher this year. For the first time, the formula will include students who are in their second year of learning English and students with disabilities. Miami-Dade district enrolls about 70,000 students who are learning English — more than the number taught by other large districts.

“The little improvement we had isn’t going to mitigate the huge losses we’re going to experience because of the new accountability system for school grades,” said Gisela Feild, the administrative director for assessment, research and data analysis for Dade.

Statewide, 43 percent of English-language students failed the reading exam, scoring a 1 out of 5; 36 percent of those students earned a level 1 on the math test, Robinson said.

On Thursday, the state DOE also released results for the end-of-course exams in biology and geometry. End-of-course exams are replacing the FCAT. This year, they count toward 30 percent of a student’s grade in the class. Eventually, a student will have to pass the end-of-course exam to pass their class in school.

Passing levels for biology and geometry have not yet been established by the state Board of Education; this was the first year of administering the tests.