TAMPA — They are the largest minority group in the Hillsborough schools.
They are descendants of Cuban settlers, children of South American construction workers and farm laborers in Ruskin and Plant City.
And, on average, their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores need help.
An analysis by The St. Petersburg Times shows Hillsborough Hispanic students are scoring worse than their counterparts across the state. By one measure, that gap has been widening for a decade.
For example, when the gaps between Hispanic pass rates in Hillsborough and Hispanics statewide were combined for 2001, Hillsborough came out 13 points higher in reading and 16 points higher in math.
In 2010, those totals were 44 points lower for reading and 40 points lower for math.
Contrast that with Miami-Dade and Broward, two school districts with larger Hispanic populations that are performing well above the state average for similar students.
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Hillsborough school officials took issue with the Times analysis.
But when testing and assessment director Sam Whitten did his own review, he said it also showed Hillsborough Hispanics were less likely to pass the FCAT than their counterparts around the state.
Whitten offered three explanations for the difference: immigration, poverty, and a change in federal testing guidelines over the past decade.
School officials said an influx in Hillsborough of families with limited English skills has resulted in a Hispanic student population that is at a disadvantage when taking the test. State data show 34 percent of Hillsborough's Hispanic students are classified as English language learners, compared with 23 percent in Miami-Dade and 19 in Broward.
"We are seeing more non-English-speaking students and more impoverished students moving to Hillsborough than the state is," Whitten said.
Seventy-four percent of Hispanic students in the district qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, four points below black students. And since 2003, Whitten said, the populations of both English language learners and low-income students has been growing. "We have a changing population, and it is changing at a greater rate," he said.
Whitten also pointed out that around 2005, the district began giving the FCAT to all students, including those with language barriers, to comply with federal law. Previously, English language learner students could take other tests instead. "We didn't think it was right to throw a test in front of a child who couldn't read it," he said.
Not all districts had alternate assessment methods, which would explain why Hillsborough's results fell so sharply.
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The stakes are high. In third grade, a child might be held back a year if he scores less than a 2 in reading. In high school, passing the FCAT is a requirement for graduation.
There are avenues of recourse for both groups under the law.
Elementary students still mastering English can be given extra time to take the test, or take the test in smaller groups, and with dictionaries. If they earn less than a 2 and educators can document that language acquisition was the problem, they can make a case against holding the child back.
In high school, a student who does not pass the FCAT can graduate after receiving a score on the ACT or SAT college entrance exam that corresponds with a passing FCAT score.
English language learner district supervisor Sandra Rosario said schools go to great lengths to make families aware of these provisions, as well as after-school and Saturday tutorials. "You hit the ground running in August," she said. "Honestly and truly, every child is looked at."
But it is hard to get students to take advantage of these services, especially if they work, or lack transportation.
Victor Fernandez, principal of Leto High School in the high-immigrant area of Town 'N Country, has been struggling with that dilemma for years.
"Many of these kids are new arrivals, he said. "They've been in this country for less than six months. They come over and they do not speak the language, and I feel for them. And then they are taking the test. It is difficult.
"We start seeing them excel after living in this country for a year and a half, two years," he said, "because once they learn the language, boom, they really start excelling faster."
Last year Leto had the district's lowest pass rate in 10th-grade reading, at 16 percent. This year, 22 percent passed.
"We cannot ignore the ELL population that we are getting into the district," Fernandez said. "We have to work on that, and we are working on that."
Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]