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Black Students Score Big Gains on Florida's Basic-Skills Exit Test

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Tampa--Results of the first functional-literacy examination taken by Florida sophomores since the state won court approval to use the test as a diploma sanction indicate that black high-school students recorded big gains on the mathematics section, according to Commissioner of Education Ralph D. Turlington.

The jump was particularly noteworthy, he said, because the test was made more stringent this year.

Black students slipped by nine points on the communication section--which was made considerably tougher than in the past, Mr. Turlington said--but so did white students.

Some 69 percent of the black 10th graders passed the math section--a rise of 16 percentage points over last year's average.

The only larger gain--17 points--occurred in 1978, the second year of the testing program, before the diploma sanction was temporarily shelved while its constitutionality was being challenged in federal court.

The 69-percent passing rate is a 46-point improvement over the rate recorded in 1977 when the test was first given.

White 10th graders also gained on the math section, but not by nearly as much as blacks. That change closed the gap between the two races to 23 percentage points. The gap was 33 points last year and 53 points in 1977.

"These scores show the reality of what's happening in our schools in terms of achievement. ... I can't help but be very enthusiastic about them," Mr. Turlington said, predicting it would be "a few years" before the gap would be completely closed.

"Students, teachers, school administrators, and the whole system deserve a pat on the back," he said.

Ninety-two percent of white students passed the math portion, compared with 86 percent last year and 76 percent in the first year of the controversial testing program, which is designed to measure 24 basic skills, including check writing and map reading.

The overall passing rate on the communication section of the test slipped 4 percentage points. The Florida Board of Education had voted earlier this year to make the whole test, but especially the communication section, more rigorous.

The passing rate among white 10th graders was 95 percent, down from 97 percent last year. The passing rate among black 10th graders was 80 percent, down from 89 percent last year.

The 1976 legislature established the functional-literacy test as a means of ensuring that Florida high-school graduates had mastered certain 8th-grade-level skills before they received their diplomas.

But a six-year legal battle that ensued in 1978 kept Florida from invoking that diploma sanction until last June. (See Education Week, May 9, 1984.)

Stephen Hanlon, the Tampa lawyer who spearheaded the challenge to the tests in Debra P. v. Turlington, said the gains made by blacks this year are not necessarily a result of the diploma sanction.

Rather, he insisted, they are the natural outcome of the fact that schools have more experience in teaching basic skills and students have more exposure to them at all grade levels.

And both of those are partial products of the suit, which focused attention on the need to teach the skills measured by the test, Mr. Hanlon said.

High-school students have five chances to pass the test--once in 10th grade, twice in 11th, and twice in 12th.

Mr. Turlington said the number of high-school seniors who will not receive a diploma this year because of their performance on the literacy test is lower than last year--more than 1,200 students were affected by that sanction last June.

He estimated that 600 students statewide would receive certificates of completion instead of diplomas at graduation ceremonies this June.

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