TAMPA — Reading hasn't come easily to Hillsborough's high school students, but they are making progress.
The good news is the percentage of 10th-graders reading at or above their grade level jumped by 5 percentage points this year. The bad news: Only 41 percent made the mark.
Hillsborough school officials highlighted the largely positive trends in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results, which were released Tuesday in reading, math and science.
"We've gone up, and we've been working very hard," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, noting that the district saw gains in reading and math in seven of the eight grade levels released. "Now comes the hard analysis, school by school, student by student."
Fifth-grade reading scores were a glaring exception. Hillsborough's scores slid 4 percentage points, with 65 percent of fifth-graders meeting state expectations in reading.
The drop mirrored a statewide trend, marking the first time that fifth-grade scores have fallen. Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith called the dip "just part of a normal fluctuation."
He said it was not tied to the third-grade FCAT that was botched two years ago. But Hillsborough school officials are worried about similar issues. They have asked the state to look into it.
This year's fifth-graders took that 2006 test, which was found to have resulted in inflated scores. Some third-graders who should have been held back because of low scores — and given extra help to catch up — may have been promoted because of the error.
Science was another weak area for many students. This is the second year that the test counts for school grades. The state tests students in the fifth, eighth and 11th grades.
While Hillsborough saw modest gains, or held steady, more than half of the students tested in science fell short of the expectations for their grade level.
"We're happy, but there's a long way to go," said Liz Hunnicutt, supervisor for elementary science, stressing that preparation needs to begin as early as kindergarten. "Since we're only tested at one grade level, it takes the whole village."
The high school results suggest that concentrated efforts can make a difference. High school reform has become a major push in Florida. This year, test scores rose statewide.
When he first printed out the high school results, David Steele thought for a minute there had been a mistake. Hillsborough's general director for secondary education was floored by the increases in ninth and 10th grades.
"We definitely hit it this year," he said, warning that too much shouldn't be read into one year. "We understand that there are ups and downs over the year. This is a good year."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.