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Hillsborough schools grapple with tougher FCAT

TAMPA — Hillsborough County schools gained little ground Monday as the state released more results from a tougher version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

More often than not, grade levels stayed flat or lost a point or two compared to last year in reading and math proficiency levels. In tenth grade, 15 of the district's 27 high schools slipped in reading and 16 dropped in math.

But officials said it was an unusually hard year to make sense of the numbers, with this year's test including a raft of new academic standards.

"It's a transition year," said Sam Whitten, Hillsborough's assistant director of assessment and accountability. "Was it really the kids getting worse, or were you just expecting more across the grades?"

The state released scores for reading in grades 4-10; math in grades 4-8 and 10; and science in grades 5, 8 and 11. Most of the reading and math tests were new versions this year, with students taking an end-of-course exam in Algebra I.

There were some bright spots. Hillsborough eleventh-graders topped their Tampa Bay peers and the state average in science, with 43 percent scoring at proficient levels or better. Fourth-graders ranked first in the state in the percentage scoring above grade level in writing.

And three F-rated schools posted gains that placed them closer to the district average.

At Washington Elementary School, the percentage of fourth-graders at proficient levels in math rose by 18 points to 28 percent.

The percentage of fifth-graders at Just Elementary passing the reading test climbed from 28 to 37, and rose from 22 to 32 in math. At Miles Elementary, the pass rate for fourth grade reading jumped from 32 to 42 percent.

But the news was tough at C-rated Middleton High, where sophomores sank from 22 to 11 percent at proficient levels in reading and from 57 to 43 percent in math. Students must pass the test by senior year in order to graduate.

Principal Owen Young said he saw a silver lining in the ninth grade, where students improved with extra support and are now testing "in the middle of the pack" by some measures.

"But the reality is we have kids who are struggling, particularly in the area of reading," he added.

Whitten said school-level results are always volatile.

"You really do have differing populations from one year to the next," he said. "And four to five points is nothing when in some schools if you have 100 students (per grade), every kid is a percent."

He said the state's one-time method for comparing the old and new tests this year "suppressed any real change" by equalizing the percentages of students at each performance level.

State officials likened it to grading on a curve.

But Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith said he was only partially satisfied by Monday's statewide results. Statewide, students showed improvement on all three science tests, but in no grade did more than 51 percent of students score at grade level or above.

"I'm very encouraged by the continued progress we are seeing in science, but the overall performance of our students is still far too low," he said in a written statement.

In the years to come, students will see tougher graduation requirements in math and science, he said. But districts will also get more help from the state, including federal Race to the Top grant money.

"I don't think there's any excuse for poor performance because of the process we're going through right now," Smith said.

Times staff writers Marlene Sokol and Ron Matus contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

For complete school and district results on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, visit fcat.fldoe.org.

Hillsborough schools grapple with tougher FCAT 06/06/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 6, 2011 11:57pm]
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