Top Story


Hispanics and Blacks left behind in Florida schools

By: Johnathan Cox

Thousands of black and Hispanic students across Florida are being left behind in
the state’s drive to boost reading scores. Statistics showing that minority
children are doing better on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive
Assessment Test however, fail to show that most of the students who have the
most trouble with the test are not counted in the annual scores. The decisions
made by our education officials to eliminate the count of students in
exceptional programs and children that speak poor English makes the reading
numbers look better, according to the Orlando Sentinel. According to the
Department of Education figures, FCAT reading scores of black and Hispanic
fourth graders- the barometer of FCAT testing in elementary schools-improved
sharply in the past three years.

Figures show that last year, the number of black children scoring poorly dropped
from 56 percent to 43 percent while Hispanic children scores fell from 40
percent to 29 percent. That compares with 19 percent of white fourth graders.
However, those results did not count the test scores of more than 18,000
minority students in reviewing FCAT data. It is estimated that only 1 out of
every 10 fourth graders was tested last year. During the past three years, the
number of black fourth-grade FCAT reading scores counted toward school grades
slipped from 88 percent to 81 percent. Only 76 percent of Hispanic fourth
graders were counted last year, compared with 87 percent two years earlier.
While white students count dropped from 89 percent in 1999 to 85 percent in
2001. Minority activists, educators and even some state legislators say that
underscoring is a problem that Most of those omitted are in exceptional-
education programs for students with problems ranging from the mental handicaps
to emotional difficulties. Many others are students who don’t speak English,
which is a growing category in Florida schools. Minorities make up a
disproportionate share of all three groups.

Add them to the publicized improvement of scores, and the average fourth grade
reading score across Florida could possibly drop a dozen points. The omissions
of so many students from testing by the State of Education, appears to be by
design. Academic progress of exceptional- education students and those who don’t
speak English are judged by other measures than FCAT results. Though state
educators think counting exceptional students test scores would paint an unfair
academic picture of the overall school system, these children still must learn
to read if they’re expected to graduate from high school, get jobs, and lead
productive lives. A look at last year, eighth and 10th grade students reading
test shows that results were awful, despite not counting exceptional, foreign
speaking, and mobile students. More than half tested could not read on grade
level. Increase concern about the effects of political pressure attached to
improving FCAT scores and the school letter grades is growing.

Grades are so widely publicized, that even some real estate agents based the
selling of homes on high grades for neighborhood schools. Since failing grades
can result in the reassignment of the staff to other schools, districts are
working on a performance plan for teachers that tie incentive pay to how well
students do on the FCAT. Referrals to special education programs have boomed
since the FCAT was instituted. Raising suspicions among critics that many
minority students are being placed in these classes so their scores will not be
counted for school grades. State and local education officials say that the
numbers of exceptional education children have risen because they are finding
kids with learning problems earlier and enrolling them in classes. Many of the
problems, such as poor prenatal care are the results of handicapped babies, and
more minorities are affected because more live in poverty. Governor Bush is also
concerned about the increase and has asked the Department of Education to
closely monitor enrollment figures in the school districts. Federal officials
are also taking a close look at similar growth nationwide in face of new school
accountability laws. They suspect many minority children don’t belong in such
classes and others could be in regular classrooms if they got more help and got
it earlier.

"Schools cannot exclude children with disabilities when evaluating their
success," said Todd Jones, deputy U.S. education secretary in charge of
enforcing federal laws on exceptional education. To score well on FCAT-which is
given in third through 10th grades- school officials spend months cramming
students on the topics to be tested. Critics of all races question whether it is
time well spent for the students because so much else is ignored. Hispanic
children, makes up 70 percent of Florida’s non- English-speaking students and
those that keeps and watchful eye worry about whether their needs are being

"Since their scores are not going to be used, what will they be doing when the
schools are preparing the other kids for FCAT?" Asked Gloria Estaban, who is
very active in Hispanic affairs. Right now, many minority students rely on help
from outside the school to keep up with their studies, and everyone from
classroom teachers to Governor Bush is hoping that scores for the March round of
FCAT testing will be higher, especially for minorities. In the past, reading
scores of only fourth, eighth and tenth graders counted toward school grades.
This year third through 10th grade scores will count. However, thousands of
students won’t be in the mix. Once again, they will be counted out. Still, all
children must learn to read if they’re expected to graduate from high school,
get jobs, and lead productive lives. No school in any Florida county received a
failing grade last year.

© 2002 South Dade Monitor, Inc.