Hillsborough schools try consistency to shore up student reading levels

An audit pointed out trouble spots. A global pandemic made things worse.
Terry Connor is deputy superintendent and chief academic officer for the Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Terry Connor is deputy superintendent and chief academic officer for the Hillsborough County Public Schools. [ Times staff ]
Published March 9, 2021|Updated March 10, 2021

TAMPA — What if an elementary school had only five third-graders who could read on grade level? Or four fourth-graders. Or two in the fifth grade?

Data released by the Hillsborough County School District shows dozens of results like these, especially at schools the state considers “persistently low performing.”

There are good reasons to view the numbers cautiously, school officials say. I-Ready, the test used for these midyear measurements, does not correspond exactly to the Florida Standards Assessment that children take in the spring.

Children have weeks to improve their skills before they take the FSA. Critics say that most standardized tests are biased against minorities and students of poverty, and Hillsborough has a high percentage of both. And it is widely agreed that learning suffered during the past year’s pandemic.

But the test results, and many that pre-date the pandemic, paint a bleak picture of literacy in the area’s largest school district.

Following years of low scores and an in-depth report in the Tampa Bay Times, the district commissioned a literacy audit by the Public Consulting Group in Boston. More than a year after the audit results came in, reading scores are no better and, in some respects, even worse.

“This is a long game,” deputy superintendent Terry Connor told the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday, introducing a series of measures the district has taken to tighten its practices. “There is no short game when you talk about improving literacy.”

Related: A reading riddle: Struggling students are everywhere, but why does Hillsborough County have so many of them?

The strategies that Connor and his staff outlined rely largely on computer-based products.

I-Ready, Achieve3000 and SIPPS (Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics and Sight Words) are all being put to use in Hillsborough classrooms, at a combined price tag of close to $10 million.

The goal is to infuse cohesive teaching routines into a system that has long been scattershot.

The December 2019 audit report found that “all of the district’s guidance is optional, rather than required, so it is difficult to determine which curricular resources teachers are leveraging each day.” That lack of structure “places substantial burden on teachers to design, as well as deliver, daily instruction.”

The audit listed many practices that are inconsistent from one class to the next, teacher resources not aligned with state standards and methods that neither engage students, nor challenge them.

In some classes, i-Ready and the digital book platform myOn were being over-used, with students at their computers for 40 minutes at a time. In others, instruction was cut short because students arrived late from other activities or the classes were interrupted by lunch.

On average, the district’s more highly rated teachers were assigned to grades three to five instead of kindergarten through second grade, where they are needed to establish foundational skills. And teacher surveys showed fewer than half were getting the guidance they need to serve students with disabilities or students who are advanced.

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In the 15 months since the report arrived, the district has welcomed a new superintendent and weathered the effects of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, reading and writing proficiency did not improve.

Related: See the lastest school-by-school literacy data in Hillsborough County

The board learned Tuesday that midway through the current school year, 16 percent of K-5 students were at risk of falling behind by two or more grade levels. That’s up from 12 percent at this time last year.

Low test scores do not only indicate deficiencies that will hurt students’ chances for success. They create a competitive problem for the school district, which is losing students and funding to the charter sector.

Hillsborough has 39 of the state’s 183 persistently low-performing schools, a statistic that makes the district especially vulnerable to Florida’s “schools of hope” program. Under that system, a charter school can open near the low-performing school with only cursory approval from the local school board. Two such schools, run by the Texas-based IDEA group, are due to open in Tampa in August.

To reverse the past decade’s trends, district leaders have given teachers instructional guides through Canvas, their new online platform. Children are being given more time to work on phonics. And, for the older grades, there is more emphasis on what is called “close reading,” which requires students to analyze complex texts and use evidence when they answer questions.

Nicole Binder, the district’s executive director of assessment and accountability, said earlier that the midyear numbers are not as bad as they could be, given the many complications posed by COVID-19. Between half and a third of all students have learned remotely much of the year, with in-person students home for weeks because of quarantine. That includes days when they take the i-Ready tests.

Binder learned, after speaking with the company that runs i-Ready, that other districts are faring much worse. “I would say we are holding our own,” she said.

The workshop audience included teachers’ union president Rob Kriete, who had some concerns about the new methods.

“We’re using a lot of technology-based instruction and assessment for students, and we’re not in a district that is rich in technology,” Kriete said.

Teachers are concerned about losing autonomy, he said. They want the computer-based products to be tools that can assist them, not systems they are mandated to use.

But more than the issue of autonomy, he said, “the real concern is amount of time it takes to test all the kids. They feel that once they’ve gone through a wave of assessments, they are creeping right up on another one. There is assessment exhaustion out there. We’ve got to stop over-testing the kids.”