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Education

State cuts dim Bright Futures opportunities

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: April 23, 2013 at 09:06 AM
TAMPA -

Since the Legislature revamped the Bright Futures scholarship program in 2011, college administrators and student advocates have been fretting about the thinning of the ranks of those eligible for the merit scholarships.

This year, it’s looking more like a slashing of the ranks – especially for minority students.

Figures released recently by a University of South Florida administrator show that nearly half the roughly 30,000 freshmen eligible statewide for the current version of Bright Futures won’t make the cut by the fall of 2014, when significantly higher academic thresholds take effect.

Minority students face the hardest road ahead, according to numbers crunched by J. Robert Spatig, assistant vice president for admissions at the University of South Florida.

He found that around the state university system, the number of black freshmen who met minimum criteria for Bright Futures for fall 2012 could drop by more than 75 percent.

The number of Hispanic freshmen who met existing criteria could fall by more than 60 percent.

“When I saw the numbers, I was surprised by the sheer number – almost a 50 percent drop,” said Braulio Colon, executive director of the Florida College Access Network.

“That should shock anyone. The big question is, what are we going to do with these 16,000 or so students who clearly have positioned themselves to enter into postsecondary education? Are we saying the state is not interested in investing in these students?”

Students affected by the change have the same questions.

“They should be encouraging kids to go to college,” said David Guirguis, a junior at Steinbrenner High School in Lutz. “A lot of kids, the only reason they’re not going to college is financial. And they’re making it harder on us.”

At issue is the Legislature’s raising of the bar on standardized test scores that make them eligible for the Bright Futures reward.

Florida Medallion Scholars, for example, who receive the most generous award, are now required to score a 22 on the standard ACT test. That threshold jumps to 26 for those who graduate next year or thereafter. Current Medallion students must record a score of 1020 on the SAT test; that jumps to 1170 next year.

The change was driven by money. Since its inception in 1997, Bright Futures has been extremely popular. While awards have steadily increased, money for the program – largely raised through the Florida Lottery – have been flat, or in recession years, down.

The Legislature has tweaked Bright Futures many times over the years, but the new test-score thresholds are among the most dramatic changes.

“It’s scary, because we’re smart kids. Some of us just don’t do well with standardized testing,” said Conner Cherniak, a junior at Steinbrenner High. “We do well in the classroom setting, we get great grades and our GPA is perfect. But maybe some of us just don’t do well in those kinds of situations. Those numbers are really drastic.”

That’s why Spatig, Colon and some lawmakers are seeking to backtrack on the Bright Futures overhaul.

State Rep. Ricardo Rangel, a Kissimmee Democrat, introduced a bill in the current legislative session that would put a hold on the 2011 changes to Bright Futures. It would replace the test-score threshold with a sliding formula using standardized test scores and grade point average to measure student performance over all four years of high school.

In a dramatic case study, Spatig of USF points to the transcripts of two high school students to make the case for changing the eligibility formula.

The first student – whom Spatig calls “fair game for Auburn, Alabama or Indiana” – is a biomedical sciences major. He has a weighted GPA of 4.40 and dual enrollment GPA – counting community college credits – of 3.94. But his SAT score is 1090, and his ACT score is 24. He is not eligible for a 2014 Bright Futures scholarship.

The second student, a business administration major, bounced through high school with a 3.0 weighted GPA, a 2.61 unweighted GPA and 2.29 dual enrollment GPA. She scored 1170 on the SAT – just enough to become eligible for the scholarship.

They are actual student transcripts, Spatig said.

“The state is using a faulty definition of merit in determining who the best and brightest are,” Spatig said.

“The point here is if these two students applied next year, the state is telling the better student of the two, ‘All your work in the classroom is not worthy of Bright Futures. You’re not one of Florida’s best and brightest. But your peer who has a profile much below yours, simply because she scored 80 points higher on the SAT, we’re going to invest our precious resources in her.’ “

Lawmakers were resolved to reduce spending on the program, Spatig said, but they should have gone about it differently.

“They took a shortcut by just raising the SAT, thinking that would make sure Bright Futures is serving the best and the brightest. What I’m trying to show in this case study is, not so fast.”

Rangel acknowledged his bill is likely dead for this session. This is frustrating for a lawmaker of Ecuadorian parents who learned English as his second language. Although he earned a master’s degree in science management, he struggled with standardized tests and said he never scored higher than 800 on his SAT.

“I would panic,” Rangel said. “That test score does not show that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in school.”

Eleni Gast, another Steinbrenner High student, can relate.

“I have friends who get totally nerve-wracked when it’s a standardized test. And they’re smart kids. I don’t think a test should be the only factor when determining these scholarships,” she said.

“It seems to me that whenever there’s money trouble, the first thing that gets cut is education, and that should be absolutely the last thing that gets cut,” Gast said.

“The people that have the drive and the ambition and the aptitude don’t get the chance, because they might not be the best test takers.”


jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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