After years of impressive gains, Florida's third-graders have hit a wall in reading and math.
Seventy-two percent of third-graders are reading at grade level this year, up 1 percentage point from last year, but the same as 2008, according to state results released Thursday.
This, after jumping 15 percentage points between 2001 and 2008.
Meanwhile, 78 percent of third-graders are doing math at grade level, the same as last year.
State officials tried to put the best light on the results. Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said in a written statement that because of Florida teachers, reading scores rose and "we have maintained the tremendous academic progress in math." Florida Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler said a bad economy has strained schools and families.
But make no mistake: State education leaders are worried about stalling scores in elementary schools. Which is why they've been urgently rolling out mandates that are forcing districts to focus even more on struggling students.
One effort being ramped up now, called Response to Intervention, requires schools to zero in on students' weaknesses in reading, then give them more help and time until they overcome.
"There's still a lot of room for improvement," Butler said. "That's why you're seeing the commissioner … doing some things to get things moving again."
The third-grade reading Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is especially important because students who fail to score at least a Level 2 on a 1-5 scale are at risk of being retained. This year, 16 percent of Florida's 205,639 third-graders scored at Level 1.
Around Tampa Bay, Hernando mirrored the state trend but topped area districts in both reading and math. Hillsborough flatlined in math but ticked up 3 percentage points in reading. Pasco dropped a point in both subjects.
Seventeen Pasco schools showed improvement, while 31 showed decreases.
Lake Myrtle Elementary in Land O'Lakes reflected the state trend exactly, with a 1 percentage point increase in reading (to 78 percent) and a holding pattern in math (at 83 percent).
Lake Myrtle principal Kara McComeskey said the school expects all children to make gains but said the FCAT results alone don't demonstrate a student's true abilities. "That score itself is not the only piece of a child's history and how they do academically," she said.
Hernando officials pointed out the percentage of students at risk of retention dropped to 12 percent this year, down from the high teens five years ago.
"If you're looking year to year, it's definitely been kind of flat," said Hernando testing specialist Linda Peirce. But over time "we've definitely seen a little more improvement."
Pinellas rose 2 percentage points in reading, but stumbled in math for the second straight year, this time by 3 points.
In total, 46 Pinellas schools saw math scores slip, with 13 falling by double digits. Among the biggest drops: Sandy Lane (20 points), Cross Bayou (19 points), and Bay Point, Gulfport and High Point (17 points).
On the flip side, math scores rose at 23 schools, including four by more than 10 percentage points.
Westgate Elementary jumped 10 points in both subjects.
"We have a phenomenal third-grade team," said Westgate principal Cara Walsh.
The Response to Intervention process helped with reading, she said. A federally funded math coach boosted math.
Westgate used the coach for the first time this year to help teachers better plan and deliver lessons. The school won't have the coach next year, though, because the district is shifting more federal grant dollars to middle and high schools.
Pinellas officials said they won't know why students fell in math until they look closer at the third-grade data — and the fourth- and fifth-grade data that is due out in a few weeks.
"It's a puzzle," said assistant superintendent Pam Moore. "We have to drill down."
Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tony Marrero and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.