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Florida schools get first glimpse of student pandemic gains, losses

It’s only a snapshot, but early numbers point to small changes during an unusual year in the classroom.
Lakewood Elementary third-grader Malachi, 9, works behind plexiglass in April. The school saw a 15-point increase in third-grade students with a passing score in reading, according to new numbers from the state.
Lakewood Elementary third-grader Malachi, 9, works behind plexiglass in April. The school saw a 15-point increase in third-grade students with a passing score in reading, according to new numbers from the state. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jun. 16, 2021

Predictions of large pandemic learning losses did not materialize in the first round of Florida’s spring testing results released this week.

Across the Tampa Bay area, third-graders showed only small changes from 2019 — the last time the state tested — on how they performed in reading at the high and low ends of the scale. These scores are released first because the state usually uses them to help determine which children should remain in third grade.

The state waived that requirement this spring because of the unusual school year, which included many children taking classes from home and teachers attempting to split their time between in-person and online students.

Related: Florida removes high-stakes consequences from spring testing

But officials encouraged children to sit for the state exams, to provide insights into where they might need extra instruction to remain on track. That includes attending summer school, which most districts have expanded for this purpose.

Despite discussions that many might not show up for the tests, the participation rates were high — 95 percent in Pinellas County and 97 percent in Hernando County, for instance. That makes the outcomes more relevant, because they include most everyone. The Department of Education targeted 90 percent overall participation for schools to be eligible for state grades, which schools can request but are not required this year.

“In the year with all the hesitation parents might have had ... and with the test that doesn’t count ... we feel just tremendous about that,” said Kevin Hendrick, Pinellas associate superintendent for teaching and learning. “From there, the question is, what do you do about it? What does the data tell you?”

Districts found that their efforts to determine student progress throughout the year were generally accurate, and that in reading they held steady. Shifts of a percentage point or two can reflect the performance of a couple of students in a single grade level.

“We kind of sensed we would see a dip, and we did, but it wasn’t really the dip that it could have been in light of everything we’ve gone through,” Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Browning said he did not expect scores to go any lower, as schools head back toward more “normal” instruction in the fall, bolstered by added services such as tutors and classroom aides paid for with federal stimulus funds.

“We’re going to do a reset, making sure every student is getting what they need to be successful,” Browning said.

Pinellas schools also plan to place more intervention teachers into elementary schools.

Looking beyond the district-level data, officials saw strong improvement at some schools and steep declines at others. Some of the districts’ previously lowest performing schools, which set their hopes on getting out of state oversight, said they liked what they saw so far.

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Stephanie Woodford, principal of Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg until her recent promotion, said her third-grade scores were “very encouraging.” The school saw a 15-point increase in students with a passing score.

Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis found a silver lining in his district’s numbers.

Forty-seven schools decreased their percentage of third-graders reading at Level 1, the lowest of the five levels, while 50 increased the percentage learning at Level 3 or higher. Scores at Level 3 are considered passing.

Foster Elementary, one of the most fragile schools that was in danger of being closed down by the state, saw a 22-point increase in the percentage of students reading at Level 3 or higher.

”While we never want to lose ground,” Davis told his School Board, “conditions were very complex this year.”

The district officials cautioned against reading too much into this single test result. It makes up around 4 percent of the entire school grade formula, they noted, making it difficult to extrapolate how well the schools performed overall.

“It’s a snapshot in time of one day,” Hendrick said. “It’s one data point.”

The rest of the results for all grade levels are due by the end of July.

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.


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