TRINITY — Kathryn Rushe never looks forward to this time of year, when she has to tell parents that their third-graders might have to repeat the grade because of poor scores on the FCAT reading exam.
"This is just an unfair thing," said Trinity Elementary principal Rushe, who expects to retain two students this year. "This is a 45-minute snapshot on one day in the life of a child."
But the state mandates retaining third-graders who score Level 1 on the test, unless they qualify for a "good cause" exception, such as passing a second test that will be offered later this month. So Rushe, like elementary principals and teachers around the state, began making calls soon after receiving results Wednesday.
About 910 Pasco County parents were to get the word — a decrease of 40 from last year.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino focused on the improvement.
"We have fewer kids that are in Level 1 than last year," she said. "We also believe because of 'good cause' at least 50 percent of those students should pass, be promoted up."
Overall, 17 percent of Pasco's third-graders failed the reading FCAT, down 2 percentage points from a year ago. Seventy-two percent received a score of Level 3 (considered grade-level proficient) or better on the exam, up from 68 percent and even with the state passing rate.
Two-thirds of elementary schools saw improvement or no change in the percentage of students at the lowest level.
In math, 69 percent of Pasco third-graders earned a score of Level 3 or better, up one point from a year ago but below all neighboring districts and the state rate. More than half of the elementary schools improved their math passing rates.
Fiorentino said it was important that the majority of high-poverty schools improved. She credited the district's adoption of the Learning Focused Solutions teaching strategy and said its continued use should bring even better results in the future.
One of those Title I schools, Cox Elementary in Dade City, continued to have the highest percentage of students scoring Level 1 on the reading section. But its 37 percent of students at Level 1 marked a 5 percentage point improvement from last year's results.
Cox also saw a 14-point gain in students performing at grade level on the math exam, with more than half of its third-graders (55 percent) scoring at Level 3 or above. Principal Leila Mizer expressed some hope that her school might avoid restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"It's not as good as we wanted it to be, but we are impressed that our math came up significantly," Mizer said. "I'm hoping that it holds for all our other grades as well. Things are looking up."
Not so for nearby Lacoochee Elementary, where student performance dropped markedly from a year ago. Just 37 percent of third-graders scored Level 3 or better on the math test, down from 73 percent. And 59 percent made Level 3 or higher on reading, down 10 points, while 22 percent failed, up from 9 percent.
That news dampened the excitement that Lacoochee's fourth-graders topped the district on the writing FCAT.
Principal Karen Marler said she's already begun reviewing what went wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes, noting that some staffing decisions might have made a difference.
"We are going to work hard with our faculty, staff, children and community to ensure we prosper in all areas, not just some," Marler said.
Hudson Elementary, which also faces restructuring, emphasized reading skills with third-graders as part of its improvement plan because of the retention issue. "Retention can really affect them long term," principal Linda McCarthy said. "It's hard, because at this point there's really nothing we can do to make it go away."
Hudson saw an eight-point jump in third-graders at Level 3 or better on reading, to 66 percent. But its math performance dipped by 13 points, to 52 percent earning Level 3 or higher. McCarthy said she expected math instruction to play a big role in next year's plans.
Trinity Elementary led all non-charter schools in its performance, making double-digit gains in students scoring Level 3 or higher in both math and reading. Ninety percent of the school's third-graders hit the mark.
"All the credit goes to the kids and the teachers," Rushe said. "If pride is a sin, then I'm sinning today."
The state is expected to release FCAT scores for fourth- through 10th-grade students in early June. School grades are due in mid July.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.