Florida's third graders got the long-awaited word Friday on state test results that affect whether they move into fourth grade.
For many, the news was good.
Statewide, 58 percent of third grade students scored a Level 3 or higher on the annual reading exam, meaning they met grade-level expectations. That's up from 54 percent a year earlier.
Another 23 percent earned a Level 2, meaning they need extra help but still move on.
The remaining 19 percent — about 43,300 children — scored at the lowest level and, as a result, face the prospect of being held back unless they can receive a good cause exemption. Those can include passing an alternate test or demonstrating mastery of the standards through a portfolio of classroom work.
Last year, 22 percent logged in at Level 1.
Results for school districts in the Tampa Bay area were similar to those statewide. Counties with higher levels of wealth, such as St. Johns and Nassau, continued to lead the state's performance while poorer districts, including DeSoto, Gadsden and Hamilton, continued to lag.
More test results for other grades and subjects will be released through the week of June 8. School grades come later in the summer.
But the third-grade scores arrive first, because they carry the most weight. Those high stakes have caused a great deal of controversy.
Florida's third-grade promotion law, first touted by former Gov. Jeb Bush and copied in several other states, has been the subject of a court challenge by parents who argued their children should be able to move into fourth grade with one of the exemptions — even if they opt out of taking the test and have no score at all.
A Leon County judge agreed with them, but the parents lost on appeal. They've now requested a review by the Florida Supreme Court.
Democratic lawmakers tried to remove the mandatory retention language from statute this spring, but the bills never received a hearing, even as the Legislature made noises about reducing state-mandated tests.
With no changes, districts continue to determine exactly how they will evaluate the students who scored poorly or refused to take the test.
Judith Cosh, principal of Gulf Highlands Elementary School in Pasco County, said she planned to call the parents of all her school's 116 third graders to let them know how they did.
"They're sitting on pins and needles," Cosh said.
Her school has been under the gun to improve its state testing outcomes, having earned D and F state grades since 2013.
This spring, Gulf Highlands showed a 10 percentage-point improvement in students at Level 3 or higher on third-grade reading. Cosh said it took time to find and implement the right teaching practices, while also building students' confidence.
She expected to spend the coming weeks working with families whose children did not do well, seeing if they qualify for an exemption or how they might proceed from here.
Four other Pasco County schools facing state-mandated turnaround plans also saw reductions in the percentage of students at Level 1, the lowest performance rung, on the reading test.
In Pinellas County, the scores show steady improvement district-wide over the last three years. This year, 56 percent of third graders achieved at Level 3 or higher compared to 53 percent last year and 52 percent in 2015.
Schools in the new Transformation Zone, which get extra support, still were among the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas. Of the eight schools, half improved their scores. The others dropped.
In better news, McMullen-Booth Elementary in Clearwater increased its pass rate by 28 percentage points, from 38 percent in 2016 to 66 percent this year, propelling the school out of the district's bottom quartile.
Hillsborough County, as last year, lagged two points behind the state with a proficiency rate of 56 percent. But district leaders celebrated the increase of four points since 2016, equal to Miami-Dade's four-point jump. Combined, the two large districts were key in the state's improvements, they said.
Beyond that contribution, superintendent Jeff Eakins was pleased that 392 fewer students tested at Level 1. Poor reading skills are a pressing concern in Hillsborough, which last year had more than 31,000 Level 1 readers.
Hillsborough also had 1,060 more students this year testing at Level 3 or higher. "Obviously, we're encouraged," Eakins said. "We know third grade is a pivotal year and we're very, very excited about the increase."
At the district's Elevate schools, which were targeted for intensive improvements, some passing rates improved while others held steady.
At Edison and Miles, the third-grade passing rates improved dramatically — from 20 to 33 percent and from 25 to 33 percent respectively. Sulphur Springs K-8 School saw a three-point improvement, while Potter Elementary showed a slight rise and Booker T. Washington Elementary saw its pass rate decline four points, to 16.
Mort Elementary, which became a community school in a separate improvement endeavor, saw a three-point decline in the passing rate.
In Hernando County, the percentage of students at Level 3 or higher was the highest in the Tampa Bay area, and a slight improvement over the previous two years.
"When you provide educators with accurate information, quality resources and time to develop engaging and effective lessons, students will achieve," Hernando superintendent Lori Romano said in a statement. "Success is not magic — it happens when there is a commitment to bring your best each day, and when we foster a respect for the partnership between administrators, teachers, students and parents."
Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick, Marlene Sokol and Dan DeWitt contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.