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Florida Schools Fall Short of Basic Benchmark

Ohanian Comment: Here's a reporter who attempted to present this as news--sorting out what it means.

But note the basic in the headline. Someone at the newspaper wants to get it in that schools aren't even meeting "basic" criteria. Oh well. Other headlines were worse: The Herald Tribune wins with Schools fail on federal scale: Florida schools fall well short of the White House's achievement standards. Okay, they got in the "federal" part, but what readers will see is "fall well short of." The Miami Herald headline emphasized "the basics": Schools fall short of basic benchmark.

As though anybody would identify NCLB with "basic," whatever thatmeans--except basic politics.

Anybody who is relishing in the fact that the Florida Bush's A+ schools are rated failing in the D. C. Bush's system should remember: Both of these guys are hurting kids.

Only 33 of Miami-Dade County's 336 public schools reached standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, with blacks, the learning-disabled and students with limited English skills producing the lowest scores, according to data released Friday.

White and Asian students had the best performances, with Hispanics and American Indians in the middle. The results held true statewide. Nearly 90 percent of Florida's schools fell short of the state-set goals.

The data ''will help us sharpen our focus on where we need to help our children,'' Education Commissioner Jim Horne said, speaking on a media conference call Friday.

Results were slightly better in Broward County, where 43 of 240 schools met the criteria.

If a school fails to make ''adequate yearly progress'' (AYP) for two consecutive years, it is placed on a ''needs improvement'' list. But being on that list has consequences only for schools in low-income neighborhoods that receive Title I federal funding. Students at those schools can transfer to higher-performing public schools.


''I think we're going to leave a lot of children behind,'' said state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, an ardent opponent of Gov. Jeb Bush and his A+ Education Plan.

The results deflated district officials who had been celebrating increases to school grades under the A+ Plan. In Miami-Dade, the number of A schools inched up to 110 this year -- most of which failed to meet the No Child Left Behind standard.

''I would think that it sends a difficult message to the parents and to the students,'' said Gregory Zawyer, recently retired principal of Coral Reef Senior High, which received A's in three of the last five years but failed to make adequate yearly progress.

To achieve AYP status, at least 31 percent of students must score at Level 3 (on a 1 to 5 scale) on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and at least 38 percent must reach that mark on math. In addition, at least 95 percent of students must take the exam.

Those benchmarks must be reached not only by the overall student body, but also by each of eight demographic subgroups: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, low-income students, learning-disabled and students with limited English proficiency.


''There are many that want to use [the AYP reports] to say that a lot of schools have failed,'' Horne said. ``That is not the case at all. [AYP] is an indicator of how certain groups of students have done or not done.''

In most cases, the school cannot make adequate progress if even one group misses one benchmark. At Coral Reef, for example, only learning-disabled students fell short.

The was vexing, because Coral Reef has only around 45 such students -- and No Child Left Behind ignores groups with fewer than 30.

Poverty is widely blamed as a major contributing factor to low test scores, although low-income students in Florida slightly outperformed some of the other subgroups.


The most troubling result for many was the poor performance by black students, who do not have the language barriers of limited-English students or the mental or emotional challenges of learning-disabled children.

''What people fail to realize is that most children who are nonblack come to school with a reasonable knowledge of reading,'' Wilson said. ``They enter school with that because their parents started them on the right foot, but children who are poor often do not have that luxury.''

Immigration is also a major factor -- new transplants often have the most challenges in school, and they are often counted in multiple subgroups. A new arrival from Haiti, for example, could be reflected in the black, limited-English and low-income groups.

''It's a triple whammy,'' Miami-Dade schools' Chief Education Officer Mercedes Toural said.

Horne, though, defended the state's record on minority education, citing statistics that show black and Hispanic students' FCAT scores increasing more quickly than others.


He said the new data will show schools where they need to focus their attention but the state would not dictate how that help should be given.

''It's best left to those in the trenches doing the work,'' he said.

District leaders in Miami-Dade had not reviewed the results Friday but said they will find ways to use each school's improvement plan to address the new data.

Wilson said the state provides districts too little funding to repair their problems.

''We should use the money for intensive-care reading laboratories instead of tax breaks for the wealthy,'' she said.

Horne has long maintained that education problems cannot be solved simply by increasing funding.

He also used Friday's media conference to defend the A+ Plan, saying it integrates with No Child Left Behind to form a single, comprehensive way of measuring schools.

''The A+ Plan is the report card -- that's why we use grades,'' he said. ``The AYP indicator is like the comment section on a report card.''

Democratic legislators, however, attacked the disparity between rising school grades and the poor No Child Left Behind results.

'These results really reveal the folly of the Republicans' A+ Plan,'' said state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. ``The federal standards look to whether schools are good enough, and the governor's purported accountability regimen is more about declaring success than actually achieving it.''


The Bush administration disagreed, saying the failure rate under No Child Left Behind was the result of Florida's setting higher standards than other states. Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina said the governor was not surprised by the results.

''He knew by not lowering our standards it would perhaps result in what we saw today,'' she said.

That leaves Bush with a complicated message to send to parents, and district officials who deal most closely with those parents are worried they will be unable to explain it.

''I know it's going to be very confusing to the community,'' Toural said. She is also responsible for explaining the results to the School Board.

''We know they're going to get fairly confused,'' she said.

— Matthew I. Pinzur
Schools Fall Short of Basic Benchmark
Miami Herald
August 9, 2003


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