LACOOCHEE — Lacoochee Elementary School principal Shirley Ray spent the morning on the phone calling parents of third-graders who might have to repeat the grade.
It was a much larger group than just a year ago.
The school, located in a high-poverty, heavily Spanish-speaking community of northeast Pasco County, stumbled under the state's tougher FCAT reading test and higher passing score. Fifty-four percent of Lacoochee's 71 third-graders, including 17 of 25 children still learning English, scored a failing Level 1 on the exam.
A year ago, 37 percent of the school's third-graders faced retention because of their FCAT reading performance.
"It's not an easy call," Ray said. "But unfortunately, the scores were not a surprise."
Pasco School District leaders had a similar reaction as they looked over the countywide results, which showed a slight increase in students at Level 1, with 1,000 third-graders threatened with retention. Last year, 933 students scored at Level 1, and 493 ultimately were held back.
The third-grade FCAT reading exam is the only state test that can prevent a student from moving to the next grade level, making the stakes higher than many other tests.
The district also saw a large dip in third-graders considered reading on grade level, from 71 percent in 2011 to 56 percent this year. Wesley Chapel Elementary had the highest percentage of students at Level 5, with 31 percent. Two charter schools — Imagine and Dayspring — and two traditional schools — Veterans and Trinity Oaks — had more than 80 percent at Level 3 or above.
State and local officials predicted months ago that children would not do as well on the FCAT this year because of a decision to make the test harder to pass, and then to increase the score needed to be considered proficient. Florida Board of Education members said they wanted to "raise the bar" for students so they can compete globally.
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson suggested in a conference call with reporters that the declines were not so bad: If this year's new standards were applied to last year's performance, he noted, the outcomes would be nearly identical.
Cotee River Elementary School principal Lou Cerreta wasn't so inclined to look at things that way.
The state can manipulate data any way it wishes, he said. But the fact remained for his school that, even with tougher standards, a smaller percentage of children scored at Level 1 (17 percent this year compared to 27 percent), while a larger percentage logged in at the top Level 5 (10 percent compared to 1 percent).
"My third-grade teachers are ecstatic," Cerreta said. "We bucked the trend, to a degree."
He said his staff focused on team teaching, collaboration, monitoring instruction and student learning. They implemented added assistance for struggling students, and grouped children based on their frequent classroom assessments and need.
In that way, he said, the teachers could help the kids at the bottom and the top.
"We don't want to close the gap by just focusing on the bottom," Cerreta said.
Now the team is looking at how to improve next year, with particular attention paid to what's happening in the middle, where a large group of children fell from Level 3, considered proficient, to Level 2.
Kara Smucker, principal of Gulf Highlands Elementary School, was taking a similar view. At Gulf Highlands, Pasco's only F-rated school in 2011, the percentage of third-graders reading at Level 1 rose slightly, to 27 percent. But the percentage at Level 5 also jumped, from none to 8 percent.
"We still have a lot of work ahead of us," Smucker said. "We need to make sure we have strong instruction and interventions in place for the kids who are struggling."
The Gulf Highlands staff spent much of the year implementing new teaching strategies, which Smucker said she saw taking root during the second half of the year.
"The systems that we have in place, do I think they are working here? Yes," she said. "But I need more time."
Smucker was hopeful that the school might shed its F, though, as the third-graders had bigger academic gaps to overcome than did the students in fourth and fifth grades.
"I believe in our future," she said.
Ray at Lacoochee Elementary also maintained an optimistic outlook.
She noted that her school works hard to give children and their families experiences and opportunities that they don't have at home, to help them all become better learners together. The effort begins at the lowest grade levels, she said.
And it's paying off already.
"We're proud to say that 85 percent of our kindergarten students are meeting or exceeding district reading expectations right now, compared to 61 percent last year," Ray said. "When we start in kindergarten and work our way up, we're going to increase the rigor. We do have some things to celebrate at Lacoochee."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.