Original URL: http://www.sptimes.com/2003/07/16/State/Students_fail_FCAT__b.shtml

Students fail FCAT, but state fails them
St. Petersburg Times
July 16, 2003
Lawmakers promised students would get English immersion classes and a second chance at the FCAT, but nothing happened.
By ELYSE ASHBURN, Times Staff Writer

Florida lawmakers congratulated themselves after they passed a bill last month that loosened graduation requirements for students whose first language isn't English.

The students would be offered English immersion classes over the summer, then another chance to pass the FCAT, required for a high school diploma.

But the new school year starts in less than a month, and the state has done nothing to help those students, all of whom
were denied diplomas.

"My impression is that it was just a political move," said Alex Epanchin, the director of testing for Pinellas County schools. "I think it's helping the governor more than anybody."

Although precise numbers are not available, the delay is expected to affect more than a thousand students in Florida who have been in the United States less than two years.

About 12,500 high school seniors were refused graduation this year because they failed at least one portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

A disproportionate number are minority students, including many who aren't native English speakers.

School officials say state officials have so far ignored the bill's provision requiring English immersion classes - a critical element if those students are to have a realistic chance of passing.

"That may be the intent of the legislation, but they didn't provide any of the necessary funds," said Carmen Sorondo, Hillsborough County's supervisor of programs for limited English proficiency students.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. John Quinones, R-Kissimmee, said he knew the Legislature wouldn't fund the programs this year. But he was told the state Department of Education could provide the money.

"It was my intent for (English immersion programs) to take place this summer," said Quinones, a native of Puerto Rico. "That was a key component of the bill. To help the ESOL students was very important."

DOE spokeswoman Frances Marine said the department is unaware of any agreement that requires it to provide money for language instruction.

But she said DOE officials will soon instruct Florida school districts to hold the courses this summer if resources permit, she said. Those guidelines are slated to be sent to districts in about a week.

But school officials in the Tampa Bay area said that with no additional funding and the start of the school year fast approaching, it would be impossible for districts to organize and hold the programs.

"Isn't that typical - another unfunded mandate," said Pinellas County's Epanchin. "This is just such nonsense."

Students struggling with English aren't without options. They can still enroll in remedial classes at community colleges.

But community colleges already are struggling to meet enrollment demands, and many will be hard pressed to accommodate additional students.

For this year only, seniors denied diplomas also can sidestep the FCAT by achieving equivalent scores on college entrance exams.

About 400 of the more than 12,000 seniors who failed the FCAT are expected to graduate because of their ACT or SAT scores. Data is not available on how many of those students are minorities or were enrolled in ESOL classes.

"A lot of kids don't take the SAT or ACT because they don't plan on going to college," said Gisela Feild, district director for Miami-Dade County schools.

Many ESOL students don't take college entrance exams because they are likely to fail the verbal portions, said Sorondo, of Hillsborough County.

Other measures in the bill, including intensive language instruction and the use of military entrance exam scores, were intended to bridge the gap between those who took college entrance exams and those who did not, said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, the Senate sponsor of the FCAT changes.

"Most of these kids just don't want to be poor," said Wilson, who has been a vocal opponent of using the FCAT to prevent students from graduating. "They don't want to go to college. They just want to earn a decent living, so they won't be poor like their parents."

Wilson was among the south Florida minority leaders who launched a boycott of Florida products to protest high-stakes testing in the state. The boycott received national attention just before lawmakers' decision to relax the FCAT stipulations.

Gov. Jeb Bush had opposed any changes to the FCAT, and some people have indicated he caved to political pressure.

His office refuted such claims Tuesday. "The governor makes decisions based on policy not political pressure," said Jacob DiPietre, a Bush spokesman. "The governor feels that we need to support high standards, while at the same time, lifting up students who need additional help. This bill does both."

Political motivation aside, Quinones said the intensive language instruction was non-negotiable.

"I'll follow up on that," he said. "Obviously, my intent was to help as many ESOL students as possible. I don't want any child to be left behind because of a language barrier."