FCAT goes out with a whimper as test scores are flat

Education chief Pam Stewart says progress is being made.
Education chief Pam Stewart says progress is being made.
Published June 7, 2014

Florida's final FCAT results, released Friday, showed incremental achievement gains over a year ago, with the percentages of students passing in math, reading and science rising by 1 point in most grades.

A couple of areas showed 2-point gains, while a few others saw minor decreases.

But in most grades and subjects, large numbers of students — one-third to half — continue to fail.

"Students throughout the state are continuing to make progress," Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said. "I am confident our students are being prepared every single day and will continue to succeed."

Her comments stand in contrast to those made a year ago by then-Commissioner Tony Bennett, who faced a similar set of unremarkable scores.

Bennett called the outcome "unacceptable" and said schools needed to refocus their efforts on reading and math, using the more rigorous Common Core State Standards as a guide.

Many districts took that approach, and at least one superintendent voiced discontent with the way things have turned out as the state prepares to fully implement new standards — and a new test — next school year.

"I'm tired of this year of transition," Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning said, reviewing his district's generally flat results. "I don't think it's indicative of what's going on in the classroom. We're teaching to one standard and testing to another."

Browning said he would be reluctant to take drastic action to overhaul schools based on the new scores, because he has seen schools transform instruction using Common Core.

Pasco district officials noted gains among students moving from grade to grade, suggesting the effort is paying off but that it will take more time.

Hillsborough school officials were less ready to criticize Friday's reports, as their schools showed some of the best gains in the state.

State leaders highlighted Hills­borough as one of five districts that improved in all assessment areas announced. Some schools were revamped because of past poor performance and did better this year. Among them: Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, with double-digit gains.

"Congratulations to our students and teachers, and everyone who works so hard to increase student achievement," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.

The minor gains statewide, paired with overall middling passage rates, did not escape the notice of some activist groups.

"It's good to see that Florida is holding its ground on student achievement over the past few years, and even making slight gains over last year," said Lane Wright, StudentsFirst-Florida spokesman. "Still, when you have 40 to 45 percent of our students not earning a passing grade on the reading test, and roughly the same numbers in math, it shows we still have a lot of work to do."

In Pinellas County, superintendent Mike Grego said he was pleased with the district's overall performance, considering it was a "blended year" between the old and new standards. He said there were some "remarkable increases" in math and science scores. Fourth-grade math improved by 5 percentage points, while fifth-grade science rose 6 percentage points. Grego said the elementary science gains were "some of the best in the state."

Some Pinellas schools made impressive gains while others faltered.

Bay Point Middle improved or stayed the same in every grade and subject level, including a jump of 30 points in eighth-grade math. But even with the dramatic increase, only 37 percent of eighth-graders were proficient.

Five "turnaround" schools, which made changes to their leadership and staffing last year, continued to struggle.

At Fairmount Park Elementary, for instance, just 7 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in reading, while at Melrose Elementary, just 2 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in math, compared with 27 percent last year.

"That's going to take some time," Grego said of the turnaround schools' performance, noting there were gains at the five schools plus nine others he recently identified as turnarounds.

Hernando County schools also saw mixed results.

The school with the most eyes on it after earning the county's first-ever F, Eastside Elementary, saw gains in reading (15 points), math (26 points) and science (4 points) in all grades.

Overall, Hernando's reading proficiency rates increased, while proficiency in math went down slightly. District science scores were up in fifth grade and down in eighth grade. "What we need to do as a district is look at those schools that are performing well and try to replicate that districtwide," said Eric Williams, director of school improvement.

The state has not determined school grades or decided where to intervene, said Stewart, the education commissioner. But she added that the stark numbers — such as a 57 percent passing rate in seventh-grade reading — send a clear message.

"The focus in Florida has always been on improvement," she said.

"We will not be satisfied until we reach the point where all of our students can perform on grade level."

Staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.