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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Florida gambles on our childrens futures

From the Miami Herald-Tribune

The state Board of Education has approved new passing scores for standardized tests, raising the ante in its already high-stakes student assessments.

So why are we not surprised that part of the resulting costs could be paid through increased lottery ticket sales?

But the tests are not a game for the third-graders and high school students who have to pass them in order to advance. Failure means that a 10-year-old may be held back a grade while his or her classmates go forward. The teenager who fails can be denied a diploma.

Those are the harsh, disheartening consequences of failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at those grade levels.

The FCAT could be a useful tool for gauging the strengths or weaknesses of Florida's students and schools and developing the state's response. Instead, the state treats the test like high-stakes poker: You pass, you win; you fail, you lose — and big.

The long-term consequences can be even more severe. Research shows that repeating one grade more than doubles the odds of eventually dropping out of school. Failure to gain a high school diploma, even for those who stay in school, can have the same effects as dropping out: lower lifetime earnings, more unemployment, more crime, more welfare and a litany of other social ills.

Costs of failure

Unfortunately, as we said, the state has just raised the stakes for students. On Monday, the Board of Education approved higher passing scores for all levels of the yearly reading-and-math tests. This follows Florida's move last year to a more rigorous version of the FCAT.

As a result, The Associated Press reported, "the percentage of students not earning a high enough score to advance to the fourth grade or graduate from high school is likely to increase."

The state estimates that the proportion of students not passing the third-grade reading exam — required for advancement — will increase from 16 percent to 18 percent. The percentage of high school students who pass the 10th-grade FCAT — required to graduate — is expected to drop from 60 percent to 52 percent; in other words almost half will fail.

For those third-graders and 10th-graders who do fail, there's still hope: Summer and in-school remedial programs give those students a chance to prepare, retake and, they hope, pass the FCAT.

But remedial programs cost money and, on that score, the state itself has been a dismal failure.

Making up for cuts?

Because of deep cuts in education funding in recent years, school districts across Florida have been forced to reduce or even erase funding for student support services. The Sarasota and Manatee districts, for example, have had to eliminate funding for data and reading coaches who helped underperforming students.

Gov. Rick Scott raised hopes for beleaguered districts this month with his announcement of a budget proposal for next year that includes a $1 billion increase in funding for public schools.

The increase, if approved by the Legislature, would follow an 8 percent reduction in school spending under the budget the Legislature passed and Scott signed this year.

Even with the increase, spending per student would still be about $800 lower than it was in the 2007-2008 school year.

But any increase would be an improvement — even one that comes at the expense of lottery players. The AP reported yesterday that Scott, as a way to raise more money for schools, wants the Legislature to increase the number of retailers selling lottery tickets and the number of lottery ticket vending machines available.

The question is whether a $1 billion increase is enough, given the shortage in school funding overall and the demand for remedial programs that the new FCAT standards will create. Neither the Legislature nor the public can afford to let students lose in a gamble that affects their future.

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