Pinellas high school students made strong gains in reading this year, inspiring hope that some of their schools may shake the D grades that dog them.
Fifty-one percent of Pinellas ninth graders scored at their grade level or above on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading, up 3 percentage points from last year, according to state results released Tuesday.
Meanwhile, 41 percent of 10th graders reached the same bar, up 4 percentage points.
The raw numbers put Pinellas above the state average, and the improvements outpaced the state and the other three districts around Tampa Bay.
Reading "was definitely our emphasis this year," said Cathy Fleeger, the district's chief academic officer. "One year isn't very long, but I think we've got the formula down."
The upbeat news about Pinellas' struggling high schools — eight of 16 traditional high schools earned D grades last year, and one earned an F — was buried in a pile of FCAT data released under a cloud of controversy.
The results were delayed for more than a month because of database problems with testing contractor Pearson.
The state Department of Education already has fined the company over $3 million. But the company may be liable for nearly $12 million more. Despite the problems, Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said the department had "complete faith" in the accuracy of the scores.
Tuesday's release included FCAT results in reading, math, science and writing. The reading and math tests are given to students in grades 3 through 10; the science tests to students in grades 5, 8 and 11; and the writing test to students in grades 4, 8 and 10.
Two trends stood out, both in reading:
For years, elementary school students across the state made steady strides while students in upper grades made more modest progress. Now, to some extent, the reverse is happening. State reading scores were essentially flat or falling in lower grades this year, while scores for middle and high school students rose in every grade for the third straight year.
The year-to-year changes are small. Since 2005, for example, the number of ninth graders reading at grade level has moved from 36 to 48 percent, while the number of 10th graders doing the same has ticked up from 32 to 39 percent.
Smith was pleased with gains in upper grades, but said stalling in lower grades will require Florida to "redouble its efforts."
In Pinellas, results were mixed.
Reading scores were up in three grades, down in four and the same in one. Science scores were up in two grades and flat in one. Math scores were up in four and down in four.
In writing, 69 percent of fourth graders, 76 percent of eighth graders and 72 percent of 10th graders scored a 4 or above on a scale of 1-6. But state officials said the results can't be compared to past years because of changes in grading.
It remains to be seen how the bump in reading scores will affect the grades of high schools, which are expected at the end of the year. (As of this year, the formula used to grade high schools includes FCAT scores, graduation rates and other factors.) But principals and district officials are optimistic.
Ten of 16 high schools saw gains with ninth graders. Twelve saw gains with 10th graders. Eight saw gains with both.
Only Gibbs and Dixie Hollins did not make gains.
At Tarpon Springs High, which earned a D the past two years, the number of ninth graders at grade level or above climbed 12 percentage points to 62 percent, while the number of 10th graders reaching that bar increased 6 percentage points.
"The gains we've made ... give everybody hope that we're not too far from getting to a B or an A," said Tarpon Springs principal Clint Herbic.
Fleeger, the chief academic officer, credited three factors district wide: Putting full-time reading coaches in every D and F high school, making sure existing reading programs were followed to the letter and emphasizing that all teachers must help students read better.
Herbic said Tarpon Springs took two other steps:
It moved dozens of students out of electives and into remedial reading classes. Then assistant principal Wayne McKnight interviewed some 200 ninth and 10th graders who were not reading at grade level. Many told McKnight they didn't pass the FCAT last year because they just didn't try, Herbic said. But after talking to him, they said they would.
"It came down to someone making a connection with them," Herbic said.