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Sobered by a drop in results, officials discuss ways to help students improve.

Call it an unprecedented FCAT powwow.

Faced with some discouraging results on this year's annual student assessment exam, district officials, school administrators and teacher union leadership sat down Monday to brainstorm ways to improve.

Superintendent Wayne Alexander called the meeting. It's a first for the district; officials meet each year at the school level to discuss results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but never in a forum like the one held Monday.

"Step out of who you are at the school you're at and look at yourself as part of the district," Alexander told the group.

"Though we have lots of points of pride, I think we have not quite done what we need to do in terms of consistency. I want to look at a half-full cup ... but there are also areas where we're not doing what we need to do for kids."

With that, they dug into the data. Colorful bar graphs showed year over year results in reading, math, science and writing.

Linda Peirce, the district's testing specialist, emphasized an "apple to apple" comparison to gauge student growth by analyzing the scores of, say, last year's fourth-graders against this year's fifth-graders.

For example, in reading:

- The percentage of this year's eighth-graders who scored a 3 or higher - at or above grade level - dropped 12 points compared to last year's seventh-graders.

- The percentage of this year's freshmen who performed at or above grade level fell 10 points from eighth-grade scores in 2008.

- The percentage of this year's 10th-graders who scored 3 or higher dropped 11 points from last year's ninth-graders.

- Overall, Hernando ranked 41st out of the 67 counties in the state for the percentage of eighth-grade students scoring at or above grade level.

In math:

- Fifty-nine percent of this year's fifth-graders scored a 3 or higher, down 13 percent from last year's fourth-grade scores.

- Certain grade levels showed steep declines in specific categories. For example, the percentage of fifth-graders performing at or above grade level in geometry dropped 17 percent from last year's fourth-graders.

- Overall, Hernando's third-graders ranked 43rd in the state in math.

Students are struggling in science, too. Thirty-six percent of eighth-graders are performing at or above grade level. Only a third of 11th-graders are doing that.

The educators recommended strategies ranging from more time for staff development to longer science lab sessions.

The district should help teachers find more ways to make learning an interactive experience, said Tizzy Schoelles, principal at Nature Coast Technical High School. "There is entirely too much desire to lecture the material," Schoelles said.

Teachers and administrators need to get out of their comfort zones and share what works - and the district should come up with ways to help facilitate that, said Jennifer Sisco, a fourth-grade teacher at Eastside Elementary and secretary of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

"I think right now we're fighting the mentality that each campus is its own little isolated area, its own bubble," Sisco said. "There are many different ways we could be sharing our thoughts and have collaboration ... trickle down to the classroom level."

The meeting was an encouraging start, said HCTA president Joe Vitalo.

"But we need to ensure it's being followed through for its maximum potential," Vitalo said. "You can do it on paper and it looks good, but it comes down to application."

Tony Marrero can be reached at or (352) 848-1431.