Performance slipped this year for 10th-graders on the high-stakes reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, with large majorities of students still below grade level.
Results released Thursday showed Hillsborough County sophomores leading the struggling pack, with 38 percent at or above standard in reading, down 3 percentage points from last year. Pinellas students dropped 3 points to 37 percent, while 34 percent of students made the grade in Pasco and Hernando counties, down 4 and 2 points respectively.
"Obviously, districts across the state are struggling at 10th grade," said Cathy Fleeger, an assistant superintendent in charge of high schools in Pinellas.
Students must reach proficient levels on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in order to graduate.
One bright spot for some of the districts: Over the last five years every district but Pinellas has improved its 10th-grade reading score by 2 to 4 percentage points.
But officials found little comfort in the slow pace of those gains. State education commissioner Eric J. Smith conceded there was "room for improvement" in high school scores in a press release, but predicted that continued efforts at that level would do the job.
Overall, state officials accentuated the positive Thursday as they released reading and math scores for Grades 4 through 10 and science scores for Grades 5, 8 and 11. They pointed to long-term gains in every subject since 2001.
Florida elementary and middle school students posted gains of 1 to 3 percentage points since last year in math, science and reading.
And middle schoolers statewide made a fourth straight year of improvements in reading, after years of stagnant scores. The percentage of sixth-graders reading at grade level or above jumped 3 points to 66 percent, while seventh- and eighth-graders improved to 67 percent and 54 percent respectively.
But it took little prompting for officials to acknowledge problems at the high school level.
Pinellas County sophomores saw a 10-percentage point drop in reading scores since 2001.
Seminole and St. Petersburg high schools each fell 8 percentage points, and three schools — Countryside, Northeast and Tarpon Springs — had drops of 5 percentage points. At Northeast, the percentage of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above fell from 30 percent last year to 25 percent.
"The good news is that no other districts have found a wonderful program that we haven't," Fleeger said.
Hard work, however, has begun to show results at Blake High School in Hillsborough County, which earned its second straight D from the state last year. Sophomores raised their reading score by three points to 36 percent at grade level, and boosted their math proficiency by 10 points to 68 percent.
But D rated Middleton High lost ground in reading, from 21 to 18 percent at grade level, even as it improved its math scores by a point to 52 percent proficient. And Leto High sophomores lost 7 points in reading, from 22 to 15 percent at grade level or better, while holding steady at 52 percent in math.
Just three high schools out of more than 30 in Hillsborough — Newsome, Plant, and Sickles — saw more than half their sophomores at proficiency or better in reading.
District officials said raising high school reading scores is an inexact science at best. Even with every ninth-grader in a reading class, many are still behind as sophomores.
"What works at one site sometimes doesn't work at another site," said David Steele, who oversees assessment as chief information officer.
"And it goes in cycles," he said. "Last year was a very good year. This year I'm looking at some schools where we see a drop from last year but a gain from the year before."
Staff writers Jeffrey Solochek, Ron Matus and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.