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Published in Print: April 23, 2003, as Graduation Requirements Put Gov. Bush to the Test

Graduation Requirements Put Gov. Bush to the Test

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Florida lawmakers are poised to pass legislation that would delay new graduation requirements scheduled to take effect this spring. But their plan to help thousands of students earn their diplomas could leave thousands more behind and put Gov. Jeb Bush in a political bind.

Starting this spring, Florida high school seniors are required to pass the mathematics and English portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, before they can graduate. The graduation tests are first given in 10th grade, and students have several chances to pass them.

But concerns that many thousands of minority students still haven't passed the tests—and thus may not graduate this year—have prompted some members of the legislature to push for a delay.

A House bill that would cancel the FCAT requirement this year for students who are still learning to speak English was passed by a legislative committee last week with no opposition. Observers said its chances for final approval look good.

The plan, sponsored by Rep. John Quinones, a Republican, would allow students whose native language isn't English to earn a diploma if they have a 2.5 grade point average and have been enrolled in English-language classes for less than two years.

A key amendment to that bill calls for Florida to study its new graduation requirements to determine if more than test scores should be part of the criteria.

"I think it just opens the door to looking at the whole impact of the FCAT on student progression," observed Joy Frank, the general counsel and legislative liaison for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Gov. Bush, a Republican, at first defended the new graduation requirements, since they are a central part of the school accountability law he has championed.

Bush Responds

Mr. Bush softened his tone in recent weeks, after an accidental alliance formed between African-American Democrats in the legislature and Cuban-American lawmakers from his own party to push through a delay in graduation requirements.

Gov. Jeb Bush

The governor might have been faced with vetoing a Republican bill and coming down hard on Hispanic communities, where the GOP wants to gain political ground in the state.

Last week, Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, a former schoolteacher and state Senate president, announced a strategy to help more students pass the exams. The plan focused less on 10th graders, and more on 3rd graders, who now must also pass FCAT exams before they are promoted to 4th grade.

One in four Florida 3rd graders scored in the lowest category on the state reading test last year, and Gov. Bush argued that many of those children could use an extra year to get better at reading.

He also announced that 35 employees of the Florida Department of Education would be deployed temporarily to set up summer reading camps, mentoring programs, reading workshops for teachers, and other programs for the low-scoring 3rd graders.

"Today, we start a new chapter," Mr. Bush said, in a statement. "Not only do we mark the end of social promotion in Florida, but we also mark the beginning of a lifetime of learning opportunities for students who otherwise would have been left behind."

But Gov. Bush's attention to FCAT problems doesn't mean this spring looks any brighter for some students, said Sen. Frederica S. Wilson, a Democrat from Miami.

And Rep. Quinones' bill to help students who struggle with speaking English would ignore many of them.

Sen. Wilson, who worked as the executive director of dropout prevention for the Miami-Dade County schools, said that 8,000 students in Miami might not graduate on time under the current FCAT requirements. Of those, she said, 4,000 are black students who speak English well. She said many of those students simply require additional time to get the academic support they need in the 366,000-student district. The same concerns have surfaced elsewhere."This class that is graduating now, sadly and much to my chagrin, they have not been properly prepared," Ms. Wilson said. "It's something that has hit the state like a sledgehammer."

Republicans claim their delay in the graduation requirements would not scale back Florida's strict accountability law that Gov. Bush contends has pushed many schools to improve.

"Our bill does not diminish accountability," said Adam Goldman, an aide to Rep. Quinones. Instead, it responds to calls for help from educators who saw large numbers of students who would not be allowed to graduate, despite decent grades and proper classroom hours. "It's just an unfairness that was not addressed in the past."

Vol. 22, Issue 32, Page 18

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