LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school officials didn't know what to expect of their FCAT results this year, considering all the changes made to the scoring and standards in recent months.
News that the statewide FCAT writing results had plunged did little to inspire much hope.
So they were pleasantly surprised Friday morning to learn that Pasco's ninth- and 10th-grade reading results rose in every high school, with overall district performance above the state level. And they took heart in the fact that although writing scores dropped in line with the state decline, some schools shone.
"We are extremely proud of our high schools," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. If the state had not increased the passing score for FCAT reading, she added, "can you imagine what our scores would have looked like?"
Pasco ninth-graders scoring a 3.0 in reading rose from 48 percent a year ago to 54 percent in 2012. Tenth-graders at that same proficiency level rose from 38 percent to 51 percent.
The district's top performing high school was Land O'Lakes, where 69 percent of freshmen and 70 percent of sophomores passed the reading exam. The 10th-grade performance included a 19 percentage point increase over last year's sophomores.
Principal Ric Mellin traveled the school Friday morning high-fiving freshmen and sophomores for their strong results. He attributed the outcome to the school's teachers collaborating to analyze student academic data, determine how to alter instruction, implement the changes and then continually reassess to see where further modifications are needed.
"They have a will-do attitude and believed in themselves," Mellin said of the school's teachers and students.
He acknowledged that comments out of Tallahassee that schools would see fairly significant drops in FCAT scores had him uncertain about what to expect.
"Most of us thought we would probably maintain," he said. "This was a pleasant surprise."
Already, the staff has begun talking about how it can help the 30 percent of students who need additional reading instruction. At the same time, though, Mellin said he looked forward to reviewing his staff needs as Land O'Lakes might be able to have many more students taking elective courses such as drama or culinary.
Several other high schools saw strong improvement in their reading results, with double-digit percentage point increases.
The biggest gainer was Mitchell High's 10th-grade class, which saw 66 percent passing, up 24 points from last year's sophomores.
Assistant principal Angie Murphy said she had expected a much smaller gain. She said a key to the strong performance was the decision to give students more specific information about their performance data throughout the year, and to have them understand what it means.
"The teachers also have really focused on higher-order thinking and questioning," Murphy said.
Others with large jumps included ninth-graders at Anclote High; and 10th-graders at Hudson, Wiregrass Ranch and Gulf highs.
The lowest performers were Anclote High's 10th-graders, and Ridgewood High's ninth- and 10th-graders. Those were the only groups where fewer than 40 percent of students passed the reading test. Ridgewood has been on the state's list of low performing schools and is in the midst of a federal school improvement grant program to boost its results.
Writing scores mixed
District leaders had low expectations for writing after the state announced its concerns over the scores. The Department of Education changed the scoring criteria last summer, and many teachers and principals statewide said they didn't have enough time to prepare.
So few students met the proficiency level of 4.0 or better that the State Board of Education reduced the passing score to 3.0. At that lower score, most schools had adequate passing rates, even though Pasco came in under the state average.
Still, some schools far outpaced the state. Their leaders said they understood the changing rules and, despite a short time frame, implemented the needed changes.
Cox Elementary in Dade City has one of Pasco's largest percentages of low-income students, many of whom do not speak English as their first language. It also remained among the district leaders in writing. Forty percent of its fourth-graders scored a 4.0 or better on the test, compared to 27 percent statewide, and its average student score was 3.6.
That's not as good as a year ago, when 98 percent of Cox students made a 4.0 or better, but principal Yvonne Reins wasn't complaining in light of the drastic drops seen across Florida.
"Teachers just refocused and made sure that all of their writing instruction was comprehensive," Reins said.
The school offers writing camp for struggling students, and makes sure that children in all grade levels work on writing so it's not just taught during the fourth-grade testing year, she said.
Wesley Chapel Elementary School had 54 percent of its students scoring 4.0 or better, with an average student score of 3.8. Like Cox, its results were low, but they still showed that additional scoring requirements did not have to break the results, even with an increasingly diverse population.
More than half of Wesley Chapel students receive free and reduced-price meals, and about 41 percent are minorities.
"The teachers have really worked hard," principal John Abernathy said. "Writing has turned out to be the vehicle of a lot of our learning."
Students in all grade levels use writing in all curriculum areas, he said, and teachers aim to use similar writing instruction methods.
"Next year we're really going to focus in on some of the grammar and spelling issues," Abernathy said.
Meanwhile, Fiorentino said, the district will urge state leaders to give students more time on the test if they continue to expect more polished essays rather than first drafts that might include grammatical and other mistakes.
District officials didn't want to speculate on what the next round of FCAT results might bring. They've heard enough doom and gloom that the scores will drop as the state incorporates higher passing scores.
They've made their predictions, based on loads of testing data they've already collected. But they said they'll wait and see before chiming in.
"I'm not going to think about that right now," Reins said. "I'm taking it one step at a time."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.