FCAT a test for pupils, schools
Tallahassee DEMOCRAT
February 7, 2005

Special-needs students' scores to be factored in

By Kim McCoy Vann--Tallahassee DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER

Test scores of students who require special instruction could impact school grades this year as the state raises the bar for accountability.

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores of students with disabilities and students who have difficulty understanding the English language will be calculated toward school grades.

While they'll take the writing portion of the FCAT on Tuesday and Wednesday, only their scores from the math and reading portions, which will be given in March, will count toward school grades. The state will be looking at whether they've made learning gains, a year's worth of progress.

The purpose of including these students' scores is to ensure that all students get the attention they need and make progress, according to the Department of Education.

"Through high standards and accountability, Florida continues to see rising student achievement in public schools and some of the most dramatic progress in the nation," DOE spokesman MacKay Jimeson said. About 24 percent of Leon County's nearly 32,000 K-12 students are in Exceptional Student Education, which offers special instruction for gifted and disabled students. Of those, nearly 19 percent have disabilities. Their disabilities range from emotional to learning to visual impairment.

About 1 percent of the student population is classified as English Language Learners, students working to master the English language.

Last year, 36 percent of Leon County's ELL students scored at or above grade level in reading, and 59 percent scored at grade level or above in math. Of disabled students, 38 percent scored at or above grade level in reading and 39 percent scored at or above grade level in math.

While these students are required to take the FCAT, special testing accommodations and modifications can be made when necessary. Challenges these students face mean their scores could make a dent on school grades.

"These students need additional support," said Iris Wilson, an assistant superintendent for Leon County Schools. "They may not perform as well as students who don't need additional support so it will have an impact."

Still, Wilson says these students have been properly prepared.

"As far as what we do for these students, it really won't mean anything new for us," she said. "We always make provisions and implement strategies to meet students' needs."

Gilchrist Elementary, for example, pulls ELL students out of class for part of the day to work in small groups on reading, writing and language, Principal Scotty Crowe said. About 5 percent of the school's 865 students aren't proficient in English, but they tend to do OK on standardized tests, he said.

"(These) students have been very successful," Crowe said. "There's not a learning gap or learning disability. It's just a language hurdle. Once we get that refined, they do very well."

Gilchrist is one of four schools in the district that have programs targeted for students whose primary language isn't English. Qualified students who live outside these schools' zones may attend these schools for the programs.

Special testing accommodations for ELL students include extended time, using a word-for-word translation dictionary that doesn't include a definition, testing in a separate setting, and testing on a more flexible schedule, said Barbara Stansell, the district's developer for ELL, foreign language, art and music.

ESE students' individual needs are addressed through education plans created for them, Wilson said. A district ESE teacher also goes into classrooms to work with students when additional support is needed.

Special testing accommodations for them include: changes in the way the student responds, such as signed or verbal response; changes in scheduling, such as allowing frequent breaks; and changes in the way test items are presented, such as Braille.

Crowe said all students, regardless of their needs, are given a chance to learn and succeed.

"All of our kids are always a challenge ... We've always done everything we can do," he said.