(Tallahassee Democrat) -- A lot of anxious parents sent children to school Monday morning wondering exactly how grades from the state's mandated assessment test will affect them.
Thousands of students in Leon County and statewide will take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT, starting today. While officials say the test is not the only tool to determine a student's progress, it is often a major factor in determining the next step in school. But several factors can surface when it comes to how the test will affect a student and their options.
"It depends on the grade the child is in," said Paul Felsch, director of Testing Research and Evaluation in Leon County Schools. A failing grade can, in some cases, prevent high-school graduation, force students to take remedial reading or math, or even cause a third-grade student to be retained.
Remember, though, "This is just one day out of 180 days that students are in school," cautions Montford Middle School Guidance Counselor and school Testing Coordinator Sonja Gitlin.
The importance of the FCAT isn't tied to just one factor.
For example, 10th-graders are told they must pass the reading portion of the FCAT to graduate from high school. They are required to pass it, but they are given two more chances in 11th grade and two more chances in 12th grade to get a score high enough to graduate.
If the child still does not make the grade, Florida law allows him or her to take the SAT or ACT college entrance exams and if the score is high enough on one of those tests, the student gets to graduate, Felsch said.
"That has helped a number of students," added Scotty Crowe, division director of Leon County Schools Division of Teaching and Learning.
Adding to a parent's confusion and the frustration of school-system administrators is an ever-changing structure that has moved students from the basic FCAT to the FCAT 2.0, which is the test students are taking this month and is based on Second Generation Sunshine State Standards that are tougher than the original FCAT standards.
On top of that change, grading scales called "cut scores," meaning the grade level at which a student is cut off from passing the test, have changed at the same time the more difficult FCAT 2.0 is implemented.
And as if all that were not enough, Florida is moving toward the implementation of Common Core Standards, which is believed to be an even more rigorous set of standards, at the same time these other changes are being made.
"We think FCAT is always important," Crowe said. However, he added school officials "don't like to overstate" its importance.
A lesser publicized result of the FCAT is an exceptional grade on the elementary math section can create a situation where an advanced student can move through math courses at a faster pace than his peers by taking online courses. That rule has allowed nearly 20 Leon County elementary school children to begin middle school math classes.
Most decisions regarding student placement in either advanced or remedial classes are not based on one test alone, Crowe said. If a student scores a level 1 out of 5 levels on reading, there are laws that kick in and mandate remedial and intensive reading time for that child.
Children who are not reading on grade level by third grade are found to lag behind their peers for the remainder of their school years and are at a greater risk of dropping out, according to information presented to a Senate subcommittee which encouraged members to find money needed to fund more remedial reading classes in failing Florida schools.
Math does not have the same state requirements, Crowe said, so a lower level score on the math section of the FCAT leads to a screening process where other data is used and teachers are brought in to discuss the child's classroom performance before a decision is made for remediation.
The FCAT is not a diagnostic test, which means it cannot be used alone to determine a student's strengths and weaknesses, Felsch said. It should be viewed as a tool that allows teachers and administrators to see where a whole group is strong or weak and where the curriculum may need tweaking.
Parents are looking at the FCAT as a test that might determine whether their child gets into the International Baccalaureate program at Rickards High School, or take advanced placement classes at another high school and they see the FCAT as "one shot," Gitlin said.
However, it's not the only shot.
"It's one day in the life of a student," she said, and echoed Crowe's statement that placement decisions are not based completely on the FCAT.
If parents have concerns about their child's FCAT grade or the child's placement, they should feel free to contact the school and ask for more information, said Crowe.
Lisa Fingeroot, Tallahassee Democrat