LACOOCHEE — A year ago at this time, Lacoochee Elementary principal Karen Marler was beside herself over the steep declines her students had made on the FCAT reading and math exams.
This year's results, released Thursday, had Marler in a somewhat better mood.
Her school's third-graders jumped from a dismal 37 percent at grade level or above in math to a more respectable 60 percent, with a 24-point increase in their average score. In reading, 61 percent of students attained grade level, up 2 percentage points, although the school didn't improve on its 22 percent of students facing retention.
"We're working on it. We really are," she said, noting that even the better results didn't approach the outcomes of two years earlier. "We restructure every year in an effort to make things better. We're still not where we want to be."
Countywide, Pasco third-graders also showed improvement in math, but still hovered below the state average passing rate and score. In reading, the district logged in a stable 72 percent at or above grade level, with 17 percent failing the test.
The upshot is that 933 third-graders face possible retention if they cannot earn a good-cause promotion or pass an alternate test. The district will offer that test next Wednesday and Thursday, and again in July for students who want to wait until after they complete a 23-day reading camp.
Pushing the positive
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino preferred to spotlight the many schools that did well on the exam.
She noted that 17 elementary schools improved their scores in math and reading, with several seeing increases of 10 or more percentage points.
Among those was Trinity Oaks Elementary, which had the highest percentage of third-graders passing both sections of the exam.
Principal Allison Hoskins credited the staff for working together to make sure students have access to the most successful education methods available. The school focused heavily on math instruction, she said, instilling math vocabulary into the reading curriculum and also using math centers and lessons based on individual student needs.
She pointed to the important role that parents played, too.
"We've all been working very hard," Hoskins said.
The district's two schools under restructuring because of federal requirements — Cox and Hudson elementary schools — did not fare as well.
Cox saw its percentage of students at grade level in reading rise slightly, but its percent failing also went up (that's because the number of students in a third category, who are neither at grade level nor failing, shrank). The percent of students at grade level or above in math went down 4 points.
Hudson had its percentage of third-graders at or above grade level in reading decline, while it saw small increases in its third grade math performance.
Fiorentino said the schools would continue to get extra help from the district.
Pasco's results tracked those of the state, with increases in math but little improvement in reading.
State officials noted that in nine years, there's been a 26 percentage point-increase in the third-graders at or above grade level in math. At the same time, minority students continued to narrow the achievement gap in math with their white peers.
Reading scores — the ones that matter for third-graders to move into fourth grade — seem to have stalled after several years of improvement, though. This year, 17 percent of students in Pasco County and the state face retention after earning a Level 1 on the reading test, compared with 16 percent a year ago.
Education commissioner Eric J. Smith predicted better results to come.
"Although it appears we've reached a plateau with this year's reading results, I'm confident Florida is poised to push forward with new initiatives and strategies that are specifically defined to move student achievement to the next step," he said in a news release.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.