With a few exceptions, Pinellas third-graders kept pace with their local and statewide peers on the reading and math portions of the FCAT, according to figures released Thursday by the Florida Department of Education.
Seventy-two percent scored at grade level or above in reading, the same as last year, and 1 percentage point higher than the state average.
In math, 77 percent scored at grade level or above, dropping 1 percentage point. The state average was 78 percent.
Reading scores — the ones that can determine whether third-graders move on to fourth grade — stalled statewide after several years of improvement. This year, 17 percent of Florida's 205,135 third-graders, or nearly 35,000, face retention unless they can prove their proficiency through other means, such as a portfolio.
In Pinellas, nearly 1,300 third-graders face retention unless they can demonstrate proficiency in a different way.
State officials focused on the long-term growth in third-graders' reading performance. In nine years, they noted, the percentage of those who are reading at grade level or above has increased 14 percentage points, while those scoring at the lowest achievement level has decreased 12 percentage points.
"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," education commissioner Eric J. Smith said in a news release.
While reading gains were modest at most of the 40 Pinellas elementary schools that made progress, eight schools, including some with high numbers of poor children, posted double-digit increases in the percentage of students reading at grade level or above.
At Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater, where more than eight in 10 children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the number of third-graders at grade level or above rose from 54 percent to 80 percent.
Principal Sandra Downes said an extra 30 minutes of reading instruction made a big difference, along with a more focused approach to individual students' needs. "We put an extra two adults in each third-grade classroom for that first 30 minutes," she said. "We're really tapping into vocabulary, fluency, and in some cases, phonics."
Two other high-needs schools, Bardmoor Elementary in Seminole and Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, posted reading gains of 15 percentage points.
"All three schools examined the way they use their time," said Pam Moore, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Thursday's results also showed 38 Pinellas elementary schools posted declines in third-grade reading. Nine schools had double-digit decreases, including Tarpon Springs Elementary, where the number reading at grade level or above fell from 70 percent to 55 percent.
Moore said it's difficult to say what happened at those schools without looking at individual students' scores. "Know that we will address that," she said. "The district will be sitting side by side with those schools to turn that around."
Jeffrey R. Solochek contributed to this report.