Fifty-six percent of the third-graders at Belcher Elementary are on free or reduced lunch. But if there's supposed to be a link between poverty and test performance, Belcher shows it's not set in stone.
The Clearwater school's third-graders posted some of the strongest gains in Pinellas on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, according to state data released Wednesday. Seventy-four percent are reading at grade level or above, up 19 points from last year. That puts the school slightly above the state average for reading among third-graders.
"I'd like to say we're in shock, but we're not," principal Lisa Roth said. "We had confidence we could do it."
The rest of the county and state got good news, too, but in smaller doses. In Pinellas, the number scoring at grade level or above rose 2 percentage points in reading and 1 percentage point in math. Statewide, reading scores improved 3 percentage points, while math scores moved up 2 percentage points.
Solid, but not earth shattering. And in light of recent problems with the third-grade FCAT, maybe that was good news, too.
Last year's third-grade reading scores appeared to take a dramatic plunge one year after a historic spike. But then the Department of Education disclosed that the 2006 scores had been inflated by human error.
In the aftermath, the department promised an annual, independent review of the FCAT and hired a highly regarded institute at the University of Nebraska to suggest improvements.
Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said Wednesday that all of the recommendations were put into place for this testing cycle.
By law, third-graders can be held back if they score at the lowest of five levels on the reading test — a requirement that applies to no other grade.
This year's results show 16 percent of the state's 204,000 third-graders — nearly 33,000 in all, and nearly 1,200 in Pinellas — will be retained unless they can prove their proficiency through other means, such as a portfolio.
In Pinellas, 52 elementary schools made progress in reading, while 28 showed declines.
Seven schools notched both double-digit increases in the percentage of students reading at grade level and double-digit dips in the percentage at Level 1.
All seven of those schools are high poverty.
Cooper Dawson, principal of Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary, where 78 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch, said she logged on to her home computer at 6 a.m. to see the results.
The state's Web site said 61 percent of the St. Petersburg school's third-graders scored at grade level, up from 44 percent last year. And the number of Level 1s dropped from 40 to 18 percent.
Dawson said she literally cleaned her glasses "to make sure it said what it said."
"It's obvious those children can succeed," she said.
State officials noted that black students narrowed the achievement gap with white students statewide in reading and math, and that Hispanic students narrowed the gap with white students in math.
Also released Wednesday: results from a norm-referenced test, which shows how Florida third-graders stack up nationally.
Their median national percentile rank dropped 2 points to 60 in reading, and fell 6 points to 63 in math.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or