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Sarasota Herald-Tribune --  November 9, 2003
by Christina Denardo

CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- Dozens of Florida schools' grades could drop next year under the education commissioner's proposal to include the scores of special education and limited-English students.

Schools with a high number of such students, who typically don't fare well on the test, are especially concerned about losing state bonus money that's tied to their grades.

For years, the state excluded the students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. By including the scores of the two at-risk groups, the state is aligning its accountability system with the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law requires that all students perform at grade level, regardless of their learning disability or limited English skills.

State Board of Education members will vote on the proposal at a Nov. 18 meeting. The scores could count as soon as the 2004-2005 school year.

Across the state, the number of students with disabilities has increased over the years. Statewide, about 15 percent of students have a disability, such as autism or dyslexia. The percentage is higher in Charlotte and Manatee counties, 20 percent, and in Sarasota County, 16 percent. The number of ESOL students, or those studying English as a second language, is much lower across the region. Still, 5 percent of students in Manatee County speak limited English, compared with a 7 percent state average, according to 2001 Department of Education statistics.

Some local principals said that many of their disabled students fail the FCAT, and they fear that will affect their school's grade and reputation.

Last year, 90 percent of Sarasota County's schools earned A's, and only a few Charlotte schools received C's. Charlotte officials say they don't have major concerns about the changes because of the way the additional scores are calculated.

A complex, three-part formula determines school grades. In the first, and most significant, the higher the percentage of students passing the FCAT, the more points a school receives toward its grade. Disabled students' scores will not be part of this mix.

Instead, their scores will be calculated in only the last two parts of the formula, which educators call "learning gains" and "gain scores."  One gives weight to students who do better on the test from one year to the next. The other gives weight to the progress of the school's poor readers, which typically includes many of the disabled and limited-English students. Since the learning gains disabled students make often mirror those of their classmates, including them will affect less than 1 percent of schools, according to an analysis by state education officials.

"I don't think that it will be all that significant because the gain scores are pretty much equal," said Doug Whittaker, director of elementary education in Charlotte County. "You can pick up enough points in gain to make any school a C school." Charlotte Superintendent David Gayler, however, has set a goal that every school receive an A next year. The label brings not only pride but money to cash-strapped schools. Last year, more than half the district's schools received A's or raised their grades for a total of $913,000 in FCAT recognition funds. Sarasota County schools received $2.44 million and Manatee County schools received $1.72 million.

During a presentation to the Board of Education last month, state officials analyzed the effect of the proposal on this year's school  grades. If the two groups were included this year, the number of A  schools would drop by 32, and B schools would drop by 49. There would be 85 more C schools and three more F schools. The change might have a significant effect on A schools such as Tuttle Elementary, with high percentages of students with disabilities or ESOL students. That Sarasota County school has nearly 24 percent studying English and about 18 percent with disabilities.

With more than 40 percent of its students speaking limited English,  Manatee Elementary School has the highest percentage of ESOL students in the region. The school has received a C on the state report card for three years. Last year it nearly won a B. Many of the students are Spanish-speaking, and some come to school with no formal education. Principal Ann McDonald says many students make great strides during the school year but it's usually not enough to pass the FCAT.

"You are teaching them basic social talk skills so they can function socially," McDonald said. "They are at a disadvantage, and to (expect) them to be about the same level as their classmates is not fair."

McDonald says she's concerned that including those students could drop her school's grade to a D. "We are making strides every year, but I think it will be a step back if they are included," she said.

Because many parents use the grades to evaluate schools, McDonald also worries that a lower grade could dissuade parents from enrolling their children in her school.

"I'm a magnet school and I'm trying to attract students to my school," McDonald said. "D means bad. D means you're not doing well, and that's what it says to the community."

To be sure, not all students take the FCAT. Students living in the United States for less than a year and those with severe disabilities such as mental retardation are exempt from the test. Depending on a student's individual education plan, which all students with disabilities have, some may take an alternative test. Some students who take the FCAT receive accommodations such as extra time. Charlotte's Whittaker sees some positive effects, such as higher expectations and more services for the at-risk groups. He points to  success stories such as Hadley Elementary, a school in Miami with nearly 50 percent of students speaking limited English. The school has received  A's or B's in all but one year of testing.

Said Whittaker, "If they can do it, anybody can do it."