Test scores show little improvement statewide as FCAT's final chapter nears

Published May 24, 2014

Florida schools received the first scores from the state's final round of FCAT testing on Friday, showing little overall improvement from 2013.

Third-graders, who can be held back a year if they score at the lowest level in reading, had the same 57 percent proficiency rate in reading as a year ago.

Nineteen percent, or just under 40,000, logged in at Level 1. They also maintained a flat 58 percent passing rate in math.

Writing results for fourth grade dipped slightly, while ticking up incrementally for eighth- and 10th-graders.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough County was the only district to move the needle significantly on reading and math. Fifty-nine percent of the district's third-graders scored proficient in reading — up three points from last year. Hillsborough third-graders also jumped two points in math while their peers in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties showed little or no gains.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she was "highly encouraged" that students maintained gains achieved over the past two years, even as their schools have begun moving to new, more difficult standards.

The Florida Standards, a slightly changed version of the Common Core State Standards, will be fully implemented when schools reopen in August. State officials also are working on a new test to go with the standards, ending a 15-year era when the FCAT was the centerpiece of Florida's school accountability system.

The very last results from the 2013-14 FCAT are due out in coming weeks, including additional test scores and school grades.

District leaders on Friday parsed through the latest numbers for good news and bad. There was plenty of both.

In Hernando County, most of the district's elementary and K-8 schools saw their third-grade reading and math scores drop. But a bright spot came from the district's only F-rated school, Eastside Elementary.

The number of Eastside third-graders scoring proficient in reading jumped 14 points, while the percentage of students hitting the mark in math rose by 11 points. Eastside ticked up one percentage point in writing — one of the few elementary and K-8 schools to see a jump.

Several districts paid close attention to their "turnaround" schools, those that had several consecutive years of D or F grades and were forced to overhaul their operations.

Pinellas County had five such schools. But one year after some principals were replaced and staffs were turned over, the turnaround schools were not all pictures of success.

Melrose Elementary saw a 14 percentage-point increase on the writing test taken by its fourth-graders. But its performance dropped by double digits in both reading and math.

Azalea Middle, meanwhile, had the most cause for celebration, as the percent of students passing the writing test jumped from 27 to 40 percent. Principal Connie Kolosey said the F school is now gunning to become a C.

Teachers received extra training this year, and used a common planning period to evaluate students' writing strengths and weaknesses, then divide the students into specialized groups.

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"They were able to motivate the kids," Kolosey said. "We can do all kinds of work, but if we can't motivate the kids to work hard when the time comes, then it doesn't matter what else we do."

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said he was pleasantly surprised to see that Lacoochee Elementary, where he made "dramatic and drastic changes," saw its writing and math passing rates double, and its reading rate hold steady. He had worried that the shake-up would cause declines.

Even so, he said he was not ready to forge ahead with similar revamps at other schools where persistently poor outcomes appeared to continue. Instead, Browning expressed hope the move to new standards and tests would help stabilize the schools.

He noted that math, reading and writing will become more closely integrated, eliminating the option of focusing on one subject to the detriment of others. For example, students might read detailed math problems and then write longer answers, rather than simply compute equations.

"We will teach the whole thing as a package," Browning said. "The new standards are going to be better for our kids."

Commissioner Stewart said all students should have had a curriculum based on both current and future academic standards, so they "should have been prepared for this assessment."

That proved true for Just Elementary in Tampa, which saw a 34-point jump in writing proficiency over 2013.

Still, principal Carolyn Hill, who is about to retire, viewed the outcome with a jaundiced eye. She said she has never approved of high-stakes tests, especially at a school such as Just, whose students are among the poorest in the district.

"I've never felt that was fair, but then life isn't fair," she said. "I tell my students, you have to play the game of life, no matter what hand you're dealt. There are so many things that are not graded that make a school successful. Even when the scores are not great, my kids are wonderful."

Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Marlene Sokol and Lisa Gartner contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at