With tougher math requirements looming for high school students, Pinellas school officials decided to raise the bar this year and enroll twice as many eighth-graders in Algebra I.
The strategy may pay off in the long run. But in the short term, ouch.
Eighth-grade math scores tanked in Pinellas this year, part of a broader drop in that subject, according to Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results released Monday.
"It was a disappointment, but not a surprise," said Bill Corbett, principal of Morgan Fitzgerald Middle, which recorded an 8 percentage point drop.
The number of eighth-graders scoring at grade level or above fell from 67 percent to 59 percent. And no school was immune. Every one of the district's 19 traditional middle schools saw a decline, from 1 percentage point dips at Clearwater Fundamental and Thurgood Marshall Fundamental to a 20 percentage point plunge at Pinellas Park Middle.
The district got tagged by a triple whammy. More kids. Two sets of material. A harder test.
Not only did Pinellas funnel thousands of additional middle school kids into Algebra I — a class many of the them would have taken in high school — but those kids also had to master (or remember) more general math skills measured by the FCAT.
To top it off, the math FCAT was new this year in most grades, and more rigorous.
"It's going to take time for our teachers to make sure that they're delivering everything our kids need to be tested on," said associate superintendent Bill Lawrence.
Monday's FCAT release brought sobering news beyond eighth grade.
While reading scores stayed roughly the same and science scores rose modestly in middle and high schools, the percentage of students scoring at grade level or above in math fell in six of seven grades tested.
"Obviously an area that we have a lot of work to do," Lawrence said.
The state results included scores for reading in grades 4-10; for math in grades 4-8 and 10; and for the science test, which is given in grades 5, 8 and 11.
Because the reading and math tests were new — and based on tougher standards — it's hard to compare how students did this year vs. last. The state used a statistical method that it likened to grading on a curve.
The percentage of students statewide who scored in each of the five achievement levels are the same as last year. But the percentage at the district and school levels varied.
The comparison is valid, Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said in a conference call. "I don't think there's any excuse for poor performance because of the process we're going through right now."
The results come as Florida's testing regimen is in transition.
Most of the reading and math tests this year were new versions, dubbed FCAT 2.0. The ninth-grade math test was dropped as students began taking an end-of-course exam in Algebra I. The 10th-grade math test was used for the last time.
Pinellas was anticipating other changes when it ramped up Algebra I in middle school. Chief among them: new graduation requirements that will make Algebra II a must-pass for students entering ninth grade in 2012.
The result: The number of middle school students taking Algebra I rose from 3,529 last year to 7,391 this year.
The shift proved challenging for students and teachers.
Many eighth-graders had to take two exams: the Algebra I end of course exam and the FCAT, which tested students on topics they learned two to three years ago.
"Teachers should have been making sure they were teaching both things," said Corbett at Morgan Fitzgerald. "I'm not sure we gave them the level of support they need."
"If you don't use it, you lose it," said Debbie Georgia, a math teacher at Tyrone Middle, referring to students. "There is rigor in the courses but the testing hasn't caught up.
Times correspondent Sylvia Lim contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.