TAMPA — Hillsborough students showed mostly gains on the FCAT scores released Tuesday — after weeks of delays — but posted a surprising decline in fourth- and fifth-grade reading scores.
The results, mirroring a statewide trend, were a departure from past performance. For years, Florida's elementary school students have made steady strides in reading, while students in upper grades logged more modest improvements.
This year, however, Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores for lower grades stayed flat or declined across the state, while middle and high school students rose in every grade.
In Hillsborough, reading scores improved in every grade but fourth and fifth. Math scores were generally flat in the elementary grades and rose at the higher grades, except for ninth grade.
Still, the changes were mostly small. In fourth grade, where Hillsborough saw its greatest decline, 68 percent of students this year are reading on grade level, a 4-point drop from last year. That's still better than fourth-graders were doing in 2008.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district would study the elementary results, but it's clearly a statewide issue. She stressed that some fluctuations from year to year are common in standardized testing.
"Hillsborough is seeing a steady increase in scores," she said, acknowledging the elementary reading scores were an exception. "But in writing and science, we saw it across the board. Not only is it growth, but in some cases it's the highest scores in the state."
Hillsborough's eighth-graders ranked first in the state in writing scores, school officials boasted in a news release. (It was a tie, they noted, with a smaller school district.)
Elia said she was especially pleased with the gains in middle and high school FCAT scores. In freshman reading, the number of students meeting state expectations rose four points to 48 percent, marking the third straight year of improvement.
A similar rise in junior science scores also was significant, Elia said, because the test is not a requirement to graduate.
The math and reading FCAT is given to students in Grades 3-10; the science FCAT to students in Grades 5, 8 and 11; and the writing FCAT to students in Grades 4, 8 and 10.
Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith also praised the gains in the upper grades and said the stall in elementary grades will require the state to redouble its efforts.
Tuesday's release included FCAT results in reading, math and science, but not school grades, which are expected in several weeks for elementary and middle schools.
High school grades will not be known until late fall, because the grading formula changed this year to incorporate factors like graduation rates and participation in advanced coursework, in addition to FCAT scores.
The FCAT results, weeks late, were released under a cloud of database problems with testing contractor Pearson. The state already has fined Pearson $3.05 million — and the company may be liable for nearly $12 million more.
State officials are seeking legislative approval to use the fines to pay back districts for the additional costs incurred because of the delay.
Still, Smith said state education officials had complete faith in the accuracy of the test results. "Parents should believe in them," he said.
Hillsborough's school principals will notify parents through automated phone calls when individual student scores are available at schools in late July. Parents will be asked to bring identification when they stop by the schools to pick up their children's scores.
Elia said it was too early to predict school grades from the test scores, noting that the district identified about 5,000 corrections that need to be made involving mismatched student and test score information.
The scores are especially important for schools like Tampa's Middleton High School, which is on the state's watch list of long-troubled schools. In reading, for example, Middleton saw improvements in the sophomore year, but significant drops for freshmen.
"We turn every stone and look under every rock," said Middleton principal Owen Young, who is optimistic but plans to review the test scores critically. "Where there are disappointments, we have to go there. We have to continue the process of retooling and refining that is going to get us over the hump in educating children."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.