Florida's students turned in a mostly flat FCAT performance this year, raising questions about how the state will successfully transition to tougher standards in two years.
Education Commissioner Tony Bennett called the results "unacceptable" and suggested that the state had "lost focus" on reading and math. The catalyst for improvement, he said, will be the move to the more complex Common Core state standards.
"This is a baseline. I almost see this as a launching pad," he said of the FCAT scores released Friday by the state Department of Education.
State officials promised a "full-frontal assault" next school year to get ready for the new standards. But they acknowledged that scores likely would drop as students adjust to the change, planned for 2014-15.
Statewide, FCAT reading scores ticked upward in sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th grades, but fell in fourth, fifth and seventh. Math scores were down in all but fourth grade, where there was modest improvement. Science scores went up slightly.
In the Tampa Bay area, students in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties largely were outperformed by their peers statewide in reading, math and science. Pasco County students exceeded the state average in most grade levels, while Hernando fell at or below the state in most grades.
To be considered proficient, students must earn a Level 3 or above on a five-point scale.
Despite the lackluster performance statewide, some schools saw dramatic improvement.
In Pinellas, Oak Grove Middle was the only middle school with gains on all grade levels in both reading and math. Its pass rate for seventh-grade math jumped to 60 percent from last year's 50 percent. At James B. Sanderlin, sixth-grade reading scores jumped 17 percentage points, hitting a pass rate of 92 percent.
In Hillsborough, Gibsonton Elementary's fourth-grade reading scores jumped to 53 percent, from 37 percent last year. In math, the pass rate more than doubled, to 50 percent.
Overall, Florida saw its best results on end-of-course exams in algebra, biology, geometry and U.S. history, which are mostly taken by high school students. Bennett said there was "unquestionably a focus" on improving performance on those tests this year, possibly to the detriment of reading and math results.
"We have to have a return to rigor and concentration on writing, reading and math at the elementary level," he said.
Pressed by reporters about when the state lost its focus in those areas, Bennett backed away from his initial statement, saying, "I don't want to say it's a loss of focus." Rather, he said, some school districts could be further along in implementing Common Core.
FCAT 2.0, which was gradually introduced in recent years, was meant to increase rigor in the run up to Common Core. But Bennett said Friday that you can't directly compare the two.
"What we are going to be talking about going forward, frankly, will be a whole different measure," he said.
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In Pinellas County, four of the five schools facing state intervention for chronic poor performance saw drops in their FCAT scores. In many categories, they were among the worst 100 schools in the state.
At Maximo Elementary, fifth-grade reading scores dropped 16 points, with just 25 percent of students scoring on grade level or better. In math, its fifth-graders fell 12 points; just 13 percent scored proficient or better.
Just one of the five bucked the trend, posting big gains. At Azalea Middle, sixth-grade scores went up 15 points in reading, to 40 percent on grade level or better. Sixth-grade math scores improved 11 points this year, rising to 31 percent.
Other Pinellas schools also saw large jumps in performance, including Woodlawn Elementary, Boca Ciega High and Tarpon Springs High.
Hillsborough County schools, while acknowledging the scores were mostly flat, spotlighted two single-gender middle schools for making gains.
Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy saw a 14-point gain in sixth-grade math and 20 points in sixth-grade reading. Franklin has been battling this year to overcome the "D" grade that it was given during its first year as an all-male school.
At Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy, eighth-grade reading scores jumped 23 points, to 63 percent earning a passing score or better. Math went up 14 points over last year, to 58 percent.
Potter Elementary and Sligh Middle, two of the schools on the state's list, saw increases in some areas and declines in others.
Pasco County schools showed relatively strong results. The district met or exceeded state passing rates in all but three areas.
Lacoochee Elementary School, which faces a state-mandated overhaul if it earns a third consecutive D, found reason to cheer in its report. This year's fifth-graders improved over last year by 20 points in reading, 32 points in math and 30 points in science.
"Our fifth grade is looking like rock stars," principal Shirley Ray said.
By contrast, the school's fourth-graders showed marked declines from last year's performance.
In Hernando, all but two grades were at or below the state average in reading. In math, only seventh- and eighth-graders exceeded their peers statewide. In science, fifth-graders fell below state average, while eighth-graders were above.
Compared to Hernando's scores last year, math scores were generally higher, while reading scores were down — but most changes were fairly small.
"In most of the areas, from the district average, we were able to maintain," said Eric Williams, Hernando's director of school improvement. "I guess that's a positive takeaway.
But he added quickly: "I'm not really satisfied."
Several schools, including some of the traditionally struggling schools, saw double-digit increases in passing rates.
At Moton Elementary, for instance, fourth-grade pass rates in math jumped to 67 percent, compared to 46 percent last year.
Times staff writers Lisa Gartner, Marlene Sokol and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.