TAMPA — Like statewide education officials, Hillsborough County school leaders on Thursday focused on the bright spots in the third-grade reading results.
The district's third-grade reading proficiency rate, measured as a Level 3 or higher on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was 57, one point higher than the state average, the district touted in a written statement.
But it all depends on how you look at it.
This year's test was tougher and the bar was higher. Last year, 72 percent of students statewide scored proficient on the reading exam, while 16 percent failed. Had those students been held to this year's tougher standards, only 57 percent would have scored on grade level.
With the adjusted scores, Hillsborough officials were able to show gains at dozens of schools, including a 9-point increase at Gorrie Elementary School in south Tampa, to 92 percent; and an 11-point increase at Bevis Elementary in Lithia, to 94. Gibsonton Elementary, a lower-income school, improved by 29 points.
But not all schools showed gains even by this formula.
Sulphur Springs Elementary, which serves a community ravaged by housing foreclosures, dropped in third-grade reading proficiency from an adjusted 17 percent last year to 15 percent.
At Just Elementary, which borders a large public housing complex, the rate fell from 21 percent to 18 percent, with more than half the school's third graders testing at the lowest level, a 1.
"They're all over the place," said Candy Olson, chairwoman of the School Board. "But I'm not surprised because our kids are all over the place."
The third-grade reading exam is high-stakes for students. Those who earn a 1 may be held back if they can't demonstrate grade-level proficiency by an alternate test or portfolio, unless they qualify for a state-approved exemption. Based on this year's results, about 36,000 third-graders statewide could be retained, up from about 32,000 last year, state officials said.
Without the adjustments used by the state Department of Education and the Hillsborough School District, the deterioration would be alarming. For example: Last year 32 percent of Sulphur Springs' third-graders were reading at grade level, meaning the proficiency rate would have dropped in half.
The district also commended MacFarlane Park, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme elementary school in West Tampa, for its 91 percent proficiency rate. Principal Denyse Riveiro was pleased to be recognized, as her school places a strong emphasis on reading in its humanities-rich curriculum.
"We want our students to ask questions and think deeply," Riveiro said. "It's about the strategies and skills of good writers and readers. We look at that every day. Three weeks before the FCAT, that's when we first mention the test."
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia also noted that in end-of-course exams in high school biology and geometry, Hillsborough's mean scores were as high as those in any large school district.
Thursday's release came amid widespread confusion and controversy, especially about the FCAT writing test. After the state made the test more difficult, so many students failed that the department had to readjust the pass rate from a 4 to a 3.
The department had to create a hotline and website to field questions and complaints. Parents berated Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson at a meeting Wednesday evening at Hillsborough Community College.
Even before the writing test controversy, Olson has been urging her board to take a stand against excessive high-stakes tests.
"They're being used to shut down and privatize our schools. Nobody is saying, how can we make improvements?"
It's completely expected, she said, that inner-city third graders, on average, test below wealthier children in reading. "We have them for three or four years and they have huge deficits to overcome," she said.
Rather than reducing schools to numbers, she said, "I think we need to look at every single child in every single school."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]