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  1. Education

Florida students pass end-of-course exams at higher rate

More Florida students passed their end-of-course exams this year, while results from Tampa Bay area classrooms were more of a mixed bag, according to data released Monday by the state Department of Education.

End-of-course exams typically have not received much attention when it comes to Florida's school accountability efforts. But they are becoming increasingly important as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is phased out. Students cannot graduate without passing the Algebra 1 exam, for example, and end-of-course exams influence students' and schools' grades.

The exams' more prominent role showed up in results for U.S. History: 65 percent of Florida students passed the test, up 10 percentage points over 2013. This was the first year that Florida students could earn a special "scholar" designation on their diplomas, and one of the requirements was passing the history exam.

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she believed students in high-level courses, such as Advanced Placement, took the history exam at greater rates to get the scholar diploma. "That could be a reason we are seeing a large spike," Stewart said in a phone call with reporters.

In addition to the large gains made in U.S. History, Florida saw 68 percent of students pass the Biology 1 test and 66 percent pass the Algebra 1 exams — slight increases over 2013.

The algebra pass rate is typically shored up by advanced students who take the course in the seventh or eighth grade. Despite a program dubbed "Algebra Nation" that Gov. Rick Scott promoted to increase the ninth-grade pass rate, just 52 percent of freshmen — the same as in 2013 — showed proficiency in the subject.

"I know that at the district level they're all looking into that data as we speak, and we'll be looking at the results," Stewart said.

Tampa Bay students improved their performance on the Algebra 1 exam, with Hillsborough and Pasco students making modest gains. In Pinellas, the percentage of students passing the test increased from 56 to 61 percent, while the ninth-grade pass rate jumped from 34 percent to 42 percent.

Pinellas officials said that, of the state's seven largest school districts, their first-time test-takers made the third-highest gains on the exam.

"Our commitment to offering greater access to these more rigorous mathematics, science and history courses is helping us raise the bar for our students," Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego said in a statement. "Not surprisingly, we find that they are rising to meet, even exceed, those expectations."

Still, Pinellas saw mixed results in other areas. Sixty percent of students who took the Geometry end-of-course exam passed it, down from 67 percent in 2013. And slightly fewer students passed the Biology 1 exam.

Hillsborough students' performance remained flat on the science test, while fewer students passed Geometry. Pasco saw gains in all four subjects.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said he was pleased with the scores and said they were a superior tool to measure his schools compared with the FCAT, administered for the last time this spring.

"Because they reflect what we are teaching in the classroom, end-of-course exams present a much more accurate picture of our students' learning during this time of transition than do high-stakes tests like FCAT," Browning said.

No local district more than Hillsborough rode the wave of high achievement on the U.S. History exam: 74 percent passed the test, well above the Florida average and a 14 percentage point increase over the district's 2013 pass rate.

In Pasco, 71 percent passed U.S. History, up eight points, and 65 percent passed in Hernando, up seven. In Pinellas, 66 percent of students passed the exam, up 6 points.

Lisa Gartner can be reached at Follow @lisagartner on Twitter.