Twenty percent of Florida third graders face possible retention as state test results are released

A third grader must score at Level 2 or higher on the state reading exam to advance to fourth grade.
Hillsborough County assistant superintendent Tricia McManus teaches a third grade math class at James Elementary in April 2019. [Marlene Sokol | Times]
Hillsborough County assistant superintendent Tricia McManus teaches a third grade math class at James Elementary in April 2019. [Marlene Sokol | Times]
Published May 24, 2019|Updated May 24, 2019

As they headed toward their final day of classes, third graders across Florida began to learn Friday whether they passed the state’s reading test that stood between them and fourth grade.

Without fanfare or public statement, the Department of Education released the results from the Florida Standards Assessment language arts test that third graders took earlier in the spring.

Overall statewide, 58 percent scored at Level 3 or higher — considered at or above grade level — the same as in 2017 and one point higher than a year ago. Twenty percent scored at Level 1, the lowest, putting them at risk for repeating the grade level. That percentage is unchanged.

State law requires third graders to score at Level 2 or better to be promoted, unless they qualify for one of six exemptions. Those include demonstrating adequate skills on an alternate test or through a performance portfolio.

In the Tampa Bay region, Pasco County schools surpassed the statewide percentage of students at Level 3 or higher, with 60 percent. Hernando County had 57 percent at that level, with Pinellas County at 56 percent and Hillsborough County at 52 percent.

Hillsborough had a higher level of children at the lowest level, with 25 percent, than the state or other local districts. Pasco and Hernando each had 18 percent, while Pinellas logged in with 19 percent.

Of course, the outcomes matter most to individual students, whose parents were to begin getting information about scores and next steps.

Related: Lawsuit challenging Florida’s third-grade retention law quietly ends

School districts and the state also use the results as a leading indicator of how school grades might look. Those grades then become a factor for whether the schools must create a state-mandated turnaround plan.

As a result, districts are keeping a close eye on those campuses that have consistently seen high levels of low performance.

In Hillsborough, the numbers reinforced the severity of a widespread reading problem, and suggest an ambitious attempt to improve 50 “Achievement” schools has yet to see results.

A full 25 percent of Hillsborough's third graders were at Level 1, which means they are the farthest below grade level, up from 23 percent in 2018. The percentage at or above grade level dropped a point, from 53 to 52 percent and a full four points below the 56 percent recorded in 2017.

Worse, schools that already had the lowest reading levels, and had been identified for extra resources, deteriorated even more.

James and Kimbell Elementary, two Achievement schools with severe teacher shortages, had third grade Level 1 rates of 69 and 58 percent respectively, compared to 51 and 52 percent in 2018. Potter, which was on the road to improvement after an especially chaotic year in 2016-17, saw its third grade Level 1 percent climb from 52 to 61 percent.

Even the three schools that were placed under an outside operator, under state direction, did not see any improvement in third grade reading.

Oak Park held steady at 54 percent Level 1. Sheehy became slightly worse: 40 percent were Level 1, compared to 39 percent the previous year; and, in terms of how many students were at or above grade level, Sheehy dropped from 26 to 22 percent.

A severe setback hit Foster Elementary, also among the three now managed by Phalen Leadership Academies. Last year 44 percent of Foster's third graders tested at Level 1. This year it was 64 percent.

The Tampa Bay Times has paid close attention this year to reading deficiencies in Hillsborough. So has the district, which convened a large literacy work group and, more recently, hired a consulting firm for $500,000 to examine classroom practices over the next eight months.

Among Pasco County schools, several showed improvement. Sand Pine Elementary, for instance, saw a 26 percentage point increase in third graders at Level 3 and higher. Long struggling Seven Springs Elementary showed a 19 point increase.

But several low performing Pasco schools saw slippage in their numbers. Among them, West Zephyrhills Elementary had 38 percent of third graders at Level 1, compared to 24 percent a year earlier. Cox Elementary had 60 percent at Level 1, compared to 52 percent a year earlier.

Others that showed similar declines included Hudson, Northwest and Gulf Highlands elementary schools.

In a released statement, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning focused on the district’s highlights, rather than on the struggles.

“I can’t thank our teachers enough for their focus on making sure students are learning what they need to know," he said. “I realize we ask a lot of our teachers and administrators, but we have high-quality, dedicated educators throughout this district who care deeply about the success of their students.”

In Pinellas County, St. Petersburg schools performed worst.

Only a fifth of third-graders at New Heights Elementary and Melrose Elementary scored proficient. Fairmount Park Elementary did a bit better, with 23 percent earning a passing score.

A quarter of those that took the test passed at Lakewood Elementary, and 28 percent scored proficient at Campbell Park Elementary.

Schools that did best in Pinellas were more spread out geographically. The highest passage rate — 97 percent — was at Tarpon Springs Fundamental.

Another Tarpon Springs School, Brooker Creek Elementary, was close behind with 89 percent scoring a Level 3 or higher. Eighty-four percent scored well enough to pass at Cypress Woods Elementary in Palm Harbor.

Three schools in the southern part of the county had 82 percent of test-takers pass: Madeira Beach Fundamental K8, Pasadena Fundamental Elementary and Gulf Beaches Elementary.

In Hernando County, Eastside and Moton elementary schools performed worst, both with only 38 percent of test-takers passing.

Just less than half of third-graders scored proficient at Pinegrove Elementary and Suncoast Elementary.

The top schools in the county were Challenge K8, with an 89 percent pass rate, and Chocachatti Elementary, with 75 percent.