State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett came to Starkey Elementary in Seminole on Friday with a clear agenda: to celebrate Florida's writing scores.
Bennett smiled when he took the podium, looking down at a floor full of cross-legged students. Starkey had one of the biggest jumps in writing scores in Pinellas County.
"The gains you've made, the improvements you've made in your scores, indicate that your teachers are inspired and inspiring," he said.
Across the Tampa Bay area, district officials trumpeted their writing scores, as Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties each posted gains over last year.
But the writing results for fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders were the only bright spot to highlight among test scores released Friday by the state Department of Education. Bennett acknowledged that third-grade reading and math results were flat statewide, and he added he "doesn't believe that static scores are ever acceptable."
Statewide, more than 37,000 third-graders earned the lowest mark on the reading FCAT and could be held back a grade. In the Tampa Bay area, about 5,500 third-graders fell into that category.
To be considered proficient in reading, students must earn a Level 3 on a five-point scale. Earning a Level 1 puts a student at risk of being held back, though the state allows many students to move to fourth grade based on other criteria.
Math results, which were mixed across the Tampa Bay area, don't affect fourth-grade promotion.
At his Starkey Elementary news conference, Bennett said people should focus on the results for writing, not reading and math.
"Frankly, you know, a one-point gain in reading's not where I wanted to be. That's not the headline. But we should keep that in our mind. And those static math scores, those aren't where we want to be. That's not the headline, but we have to keep moving forward," he said.
As seemed to be the trend statewide, third-grade reading and math scores at Starkey were either flat or a little down from last year. But fourth-graders at Starkey posted a jump of 33 percentage points in writing, with 68 percent earning a 3.5 or better on a six-point scale this year compared to 35 percent last year.
Statewide, 57 percent of fourth-graders earned a 3.5 on the writing exam this year, a nine-point jump over last year. Improvement among eighth- and 10th-graders was more modest, with each grade going up two percentage points.
Like Starkey, some schools in the Tampa Bay area posted writing gains of 30 percentage points or more.
In Hillsborough, Graham Elementary saw a 30 percent jump, with 90 percent of fourth-graders hitting the mark this year. In Pinellas, Woodlawn Elementary went up a whopping 50 percentage points, to 66 percent.
Bennett conceded that state officials don't know yet how to explain the jump in fourth-grade scores. Superintendents statewide provided a variety of possible answers, from better training for teachers to giving students an extra 15 minutes on the test, to districts' efforts to prepare for the more complex Common Core state standards.
Last year's writing scores sparked a statewide outcry, as a stricter emphasis on grammar and spelling and a higher bar resulted in only about one-third of students meeting expectations.
Amid the controversy, the state Board of Education reduced its benchmark score from a 4.0 out of 6.0 to a 3.0, bumping scores back up to the level people were accustomed to seeing. In past years, a 3.5 had been the standard.
State officials returned to that mark this year — and noted that it could negatively affect school grades, which are expected to be released in July. Other FCAT scores are expected to be released in early June.
Many schools in the Tampa Bay area celebrated their individual successes Friday.
There was all-around improvement at Potter Elementary and Sligh Middle, two schools facing state-mandated turnaround plans.
Sharon Waite, assistant principal at Potter, said they were "very happy" with scores, showing a gain of seven percentage points in third-grade reading, to 31 percent. Third-grade math and fourth-grade writing each improved by 17 percentage points, to 37 percent in math and 63 percent in writing.
At Sligh, principal Angela Vickers said she was "ecstatic" about writing scores. Eighth-graders scoring a 3.5 or above rose to 59 percent from 37 percent.
Around the district, Just, Knights and Sulphur Springs were among elementary schools showing dramatic improvement in reading, countered by decreases at Burney, Clair-Mel, Sheehy and Forest Hills elementaries.
Some of the five schools facing state intervention for chronic low performance saw deep dives. At Maximo Elementary, for instance, the percentage of third-grade students passing the reading test fell from 28 to 15, while the math pass rate plummeted from 13 percent to 4 percent.
At Melrose Elementary, fewer third-graders passed the math test, with 19 percent earning a proficient score or above this year compared to 24 percent last year. Third-grade reading scores, while still low, jumped 10 percentage points to 26 percent of students earning a score proficient or better.
Some schools showed dramatic improvement. Longleaf Elementary had a 12-point jump in its third-grade reading performance and a 21 point increase in math. Calusa Elementary had the district's highest gain in reading, with a 14 point jump.
At the district's most closely watched school, Lacoochee Elementary, third-graders upped their performance slightly from a year ago. But they also got the district's worst results in reading and math, with 26 percent passing the reading test and 16 percent passing in math. Lacoochee's fourth-graders had the district's worst writing scores.
Recently, despite a "turnaround" effort that calls for a staff overhaul, five of the school's six third-grade teachers were rehired and will be given $2,500 bonuses for staying.
Scores increased across the board over last year, with some of the highest marks in the Tampa Bay area.
District third-graders pulled in the highest reading scores in the region, with 62 percent proficient or better. They also earned the highest math scores, with 59 percent of students scoring a 3 or higher.
"We're pleased with the results," said Eric Williams, Hernando's director of school improvement.
Writing scores for fourth-, eighth- and tenth-graders all increased, with fourth-graders jumping 11 percent from last year. Despite the improvement, the writing scores were the lowest in Tampa Bay and fell below the state average in each case.
Times staff writers Lisa Gartner, Marlene Sokol and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.