TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- (Tallahassee.com) Starting this school year, students will have to pass end-of-course exams in geometry and biology in order to graduate high school.
The new rule applies to this year's ninth-graders, who will have to pass the exams to get credit for the courses, which are part of the curriculum required for graduation.
In December, the state Board of Education approved a scoring system for the new exams. More than one in three Florida students would not pass on the first try, at least at first, according to data reviewed by the panels of educators and businesspeople who helped set the passing scores.
Allen Burch, the principal at Tallahassee's Lincoln High School, said high schools have already revamped their curriculum to help students who fail the first time to pass the exams during retakes available in the summer, fall or spring.
High schools in Leon County offer two-week summer sessions where students work closely with teachers to shore up weaknesses in subject areas covered by the exams. The sessions are not mandatory, but Burch said students who participated this year were more likely to succeed when they took the Algebra I test the second time. He said those sessions will be expanded this year to include geometry.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said the state has not projected how the new policies would affect the number of students who graduate.
"What we can say is that in the past when we've increased standards, students, schools and districts rise to the challenge and overall improvement occurs," Tiffany Cowie, a department spokeswoman, said in an email response.
Raising the bar
Over the past two decades, most groups of high school freshman have needed to clear new or higher hurdles before graduation.
The goal of the new requirements is to raise the bar, but set it at a point school districts are able to reach. Students who fail the exam the first time can bolster their skills in biology or geometry by taking integrated math or science classes the following year. The courses allow them to keep advancing while reinforcing subject matter from the previous year's exams.
"There's not one-size-fits-all response," said Gillian Gregory, a Leon County Schools administrator who oversees student testing data. "It's really tailored to the individual students and the school community."
Paul Felsch, the Leon County Schools testing administrator who will retire in a few months, said he remembers the impact of FCAT becoming a graduation requirement. Schools overhauled their curriculum and created remedial programs for students who needed them. Most students either passed the exam the first time, succeeded on later attempts or faced other barriers to graduating such as their grade-point averages.
"At the time there were very few students who were denied a diploma just because of the FCAT," he said. When the current class of freshman prepare to graduate, educators will know if that pattern holds true for the end-of-course exams.
Under the scoring system approved by the state Board of Education in December, less than 60 percent of students would be expected to pass the exams initially, while almost a quarter are expected to score a four or above, indicating they are college-ready.
Lincoln students usually score better than the statewide average on tests, and that holds true for most Leon County schools. Burch said he expects the proportion of students at his school who fail the exams to be lower than the statewide percentage.
Still, the task for high school teachers and administrators is substantial.
They have to prepare their students for the new tests at a time when they are preparing for the new Common Core State Standards and end-of-course exams in every subject area over the next two years.
Burch said he discusses data on student progress with his fellow administrators almost daily.
"I'm not upset at the state for expecting accountability and requiring that, but the time lines are really tough when they make you do it in a 24-month period," he said.
Another alternative, anxieties addressed
Students who do not pass the FCAT have had another option: The state sets scores that allow them to meet their graduation requirements with their scores on the SAT or ACT.
However, the state needed time to develop scores that matched the new, tougher FCAT 2.0. The Department of Education had expected that process to take until the fall of 2013, meaning some current juniors would not know until their senior year whether their scores would allow them to graduate.
Gillian Gregory said that became a major source of anxiety for some students, analogous to running a race without knowing where the finish line is.
The issue was highlighted last week by the Tampa Bay Times, triggering a letter from state Sen. John Legg, the Port Richey Republican who chairs the education committee.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said Tuesday that the state has been crunching data on FCAT, SAT and ACT scores. The state now expects to release the new scores ahead of schedule - "before the end of the month."
Travis Pillow, Tallahassee Democrat