Thursday was a rough day at San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin.
So rough, that principal Monika Wolcott emailed her staff asking them to hug third-grade teachers.
"They're sad today," she said. "It really attacks your self worth."
Like San Jose Elementary, schools throughout Florida were grappling Thursday with changes to the state's high-stakes reading exam. Third-graders faced a tougher test and a higher bar this year, resulting in far fewer numbers earning grade-level scores.
More students statewide also could be held back because they failed the reading FCAT, earning a Level 1 out of 5. Students must earn a Level 3 to be considered proficient; Level 2 scores mean students need extra attention but don't affect grade promotion.
That means statewide about 36,000 third-graders may be held back, 4,000 more than last year. The numbers in Tampa Bay range from about 2,694 in Hillsborough to 229 in Hernando.
Across the state, fewer students were considered proficient in math this year, too. Those results aren't used in grade promotion.
State education officials have been battling a groundswell of frustration about rapid changes to the state's accountability system this year. With the release Thursday of third-grade reading and math results, they cautioned against comparing 2011 scores with 2012, which would result in double-digit declines statewide.
Instead, they put out adjusted scores, showing how last year's students would have fared against this year's tougher standards. By that measure, only 57 percent of third-graders statewide would have scored on grade level in reading — about the same as this year's 56 percent.
In 2011, with the easier test, 72 percent of third-graders were proficient.
Some people questioned whether the state put out the adjusted scores to game the system.
"What does it matter what I would have gotten last year if the standards had been different?" said Colleen Wood of Save Duval Schools. "My question is, what are you trying to prove? If I change the standards fast enough and often enough, I can make anyone look like a failure."
But Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson defended the approach, saying it was the only way to make a fair year-to-year comparison.
"It's no way a manipulation of the figures. It's an adjustment of how we grade FCAT," he said.
At Dunedin's San Jose Elementary, for instance, 48 percent of third-graders scored on grade level this year. That was a drop of 28 percentage points — even compared to the state's adjusted scores. In 2011, when third-graders took an easier test, 89 percent earned proficient scores.
Such dramatic changes have been confusing — and frustrating — for many parents, teachers and even school officials.
Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Pinellas County schools, said the biggest challenge of the day was helping schools make sense of the data, given all of the changes imposed by the state.
"It is very, very confusing to people," he said.
Lou Cerreta, principal of Cotee River Elementary School in Pasco County, said he tried not to get bogged down in the state's efforts to harmonize the scores.
"It is difficult to compare, because it's different criteria. You could look at the numbers every which way," he said.
Math results mirrored the trends in reading.
Just 58 percent of third-graders earned grade-level scores in math this year — a slight improvement over last year's 56 percent, based on the adjusted scores. Last year, 78 percent of students earned proficient scores.
To help parents understand the differences this year, the state is sending letters of explanation home with children's test scores. Parents also will be told how their child would have scored on last year's exams had this year's standards been applied.
Cynthia Shellabarger, a Hillsborough parent, chastised Robinson and his department at a public forum in Tampa on Wednesday night. "Why are we doing all this so quick and so soon when it's all going to change again?" she wondered.
Parents should learn soon how their high school students fared on the state's new end-of-course exams, which are slowly replacing the high school FCAT test. Results released Thursday were for schools, districts and the state.
The exams count for 30 percent of a student's grade this year. In future years, students will have to pass the exams to pass their classes.
This is the first year for the state's geometry and biology end-of-course exams so there isn't comparable year-to-year data. Instead, the state used a 20 to 80 scale score, with a statewide mean of 49 on both exams.
In the Tampa Bay area, school districts were mostly on par with the statewide mean. Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties had a mean of 50 on both exams, while Hernando had a mean of 47 on geometry and a 49 on biology.
Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected],(727)-893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.