Pinellas County educators are noticing a startling divide this semester as results come in from new tests designed to assess how well students in struggling schools understand state standards.
Younger students — those in kindergarten through second grade — are scoring higher than their older counterparts in third, fourth and fifth grades. Much higher.
The stark difference in performance exists mostly on the English language arts tests, which hinge on literacy. Some schools have 100 percent of kindergarten students mastering the tests while the percentage of fifth-graders who are proficient is in single digits.
At Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, for example, 86 percent of kindergarten students mastered the material on the Nov. 4 test, compared to 71 percent of first-graders, 38 percent of second-graders, 12 percent of third-graders, 10 percent of fourth-graders and 2 percent of fifth-graders. Most of schools giving the tests have generally followed this pattern over the first four months of the year.
While the tests aren't meant to closely predict how well students perform on the high-stakes Florida Standards Assessment in the spring, these early results are hard to ignore. The state tests are based on the performance of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
The pattern has emerged on biweekly tests given to students in the school district's new "Transformation Zone." The zone is a collection of Pinellas County's most struggling elementary schools: Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and Midtown Academy, all in St. Petersburg, and Sandy Lane and High Point in Clearwater.
The tests, which are new this year and are only being given in those schools, are being used to help teachers identify how well they have taught the state standards and to catch students' weak areas earlier in the year.
Antonio Burt, who is leading the Pinellas transformation effort, said teachers are not waiting to expose students to advanced concepts. For example, a standard usually scheduled to be taught in February — one that could count as much as 40 percent on the Florida Standards Assessment — now is introduced to students in August, giving them more time to practice.
So, why are older — and more experienced — students scoring lower on the new biweekly tests?
For one, the Florida standards get more challenging and complex starting in third grade. Test formats for kindergarten through second grade are often as simple as one question, and one choice for an answer. By third grade, however, they require a multi-pronged approach, where it could take seven steps to get the correct answer.
Another reason, according to Burt, is that the eight schools have "pockets of teachers" who need more reinforcement on what the standards are. School coaches and principals hold meetings with teachers every other week to discuss results and go over training. An instructional calendar listing the standards was created for teachers to follow.
"I'm not really concerned about the score," Burt said of the biweekly tests. "I'm concerned about not instructing the standards."
The district uses another exam to help forecast how well students will do on the spring state tests.
At Sandy Lane Elementary, principal Tzeporaw Sahadeo adds some encouragement for the children. She created the 80 Percent Club to recognize students who scored at least an 80 percent on their biweekly tests.
Those students get to cut the lunch line for the week and are given 80 "shark shillings" — enough for a bag of coveted Takis spicy chips from the school store. Incentives also are given for children who barely miss the mark and earn 70 percent.
"They no longer see the bi-weekly assessments as something they don't want to do because it's palatable for them," Sahadeo said. "And it's competitive. They like to compete."
The tests also help with stamina, she said. Students took five-question assessments for the first two months of school. The assessment was lengthened to seven questions in October. By Christmas, students should be taking assessments with 10 questions.
"The point is to build the child's muscle," Sahadeo said. "It's smart, and I hope it works — I really do. Because we bought into it."
In addition to English-language arts, the biweekly tests enable educators to tell how well students understand Florida's math and science standards. In math, the divide between younger and older students hasn't been as consistent. Science mastery is low in almost all grades.
Schools in the Transformation Zone are getting additional support to improve, although not all eight schools are receiving the same resources. All eight have a longer school day, for instance, but five of the schools receive an additional half hour beyond even the longer day.
The eight schools had an F grade from the state at least once in the past two years. Maximo and Sandy Lane improved to a C, and Lakewood, Fairmount Park and High Point improved to a D.
Melrose, Midtown Academy (formerly known as University Preparatory Academy) and Campbell Park remain F schools.