Facing a tough new graduation requirement, Florida's seventh- and eighth-graders overwhelmingly passed the state's high-stakes algebra exam, while ninth-graders faltered.
Of those who took the test this year, nearly nine out of every 10 middle school students statewide earned passing marks or better. Slightly fewer than half of ninth-graders did.
That pattern held true in the Tampa Bay region, with seventh-graders performing the best, followed by eighth-graders and ninth-graders.
Of those who took the exam, 92 percent of seventh-graders passed in Pinellas County, while 96 percent passed in Hillsborough County and 100 percent were proficient or better in Pasco and Hernando counties.
School officials said seventh-graders were most likely to succeed because only advanced students take algebra at that age.
"Those are your high-fliers," said Dave Rosenberger, principal of Clearwater Fundamental Middle School, where 100 percent of seventh-graders and 94 percent of eighth-graders who took the test passed it. Sixth-graders also take the exam, but typically there are too few to report results.
Rosenberger said he started getting calls from parents before the results had been announced. Students also dropped by the front office Friday to learn their scores — many needed to pass to guarantee placement in high school programs. He described their reactions as a mixture of relief and excitement.
The Algebra I exam is the first of Florida's new high-stakes end-of-course tests — part of a move to increase the rigor of high school graduation requirements. The exams replaced the math and science FCAT for high school students.
Students in grades 6-12 took the new Algebra I exam last year. But this year's ninth-graders are the first who must pass the test to graduate from high school. Students must earn a Level 3 or better on a five-point scale.
Next year's ninth-graders will face an even greater hurdle: needing to pass end-of-course exams in algebra, biology and geometry to earn their high school diploma.
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson praised students statewide for a better-than-expected performance on the algebra exam. "As our state has raised the bar, our students have shown steady improvement," he said in a prepared statement.
The algebra results are something of a win for the state Department of Education, which has been waging a public relations campaign this year against growing frustration about testing.
Parents, students, teachers and even school superintendents have questioned how quickly the state rolled out changes to its accountability system.
This year's writing results were a black mark for the state, as scores dropped so dramatically for fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders that the state Board of Education had to lower the passing score.
Parents also were concerned about third grade reading results: Thousands more students failed this year and could be held back.
The state is expected to release the rest of the FCAT scores next week: that includes reading and math, grades 4-8, and science, grades 5 and 8.
School officials throughout the Tampa Bay region were pouring over the algebra results Friday, looking for trends and planning remedial options for ninth-graders who failed.
In Hernando County, where ninth-graders trailed the state average, superintendent Bryan Blavatt expressed concern. Statewide, 48 percent of ninth-graders passed, while 46 percent of Hernando's ninth-graders did.
"I'm certainly not happy that we're performing below the state average," he said. "But I can guarantee that we are looking at why we performed below that average and how we're going to resolve it."
In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, ninth-graders were well below the state average. In Pinellas, 34 percent of ninth-graders passed, while 28 percent did in Hillsborough.
Pinellas officials said many of their students take algebra in middle school. That means this year's ninth-graders likely struggled in the subject.
"The students who are testing in ninth grade are some of the ones who need more time," said Bill Lawrence, an associate superintendent in Pinellas.
That was true in Hillsborough, too, where the vast majority of students take algebra in eighth grade. Of those students, 78 percent earning a passing score.
Both counties will offer summer school for students who failed, with the earliest opportunity to retake the exam in July.
Phillip Carr, principal of Riverview's Spoto High School, offered a mixed review of his school's performance. Only 29 percent of ninth-graders passed.
"I'm pleased with our results compared to the rest of the district, but I understand that we have some work to do," he said.