1. Opinion

Behind the FCAT numbers, a need to improve

Published Jan. 28, 2012

Rising FCAT scores show a larger portion of Florida public school students have mastered reading and math at grade level than just a decade ago. But a look behind those numbers by the Tampa Bay Times education team also suggests public school students in Tampa Bay aren't improving as fast as their peers statewide. The trend is particularly noticeable in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — which educate the overwhelming majority of the region's students — and deserves some thoughtful discussion from educators and the community about how to improve student performance.

The challenge now for the Pinellas County School Board: Focus on that deficit when it searches for its permanent superintendent. For Hillsborough: Ensure its much-heralded reforms improve students' progress, not just baseline test scores.

The problem with standardized test scores, of course, is that they are simplistic. That's the problem with the ranking that Gov. Rick Scott released last week based solely on one year's performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Scott's ranking showed which districts' students performed best, but it gave no insight into which district did the best job of improving student performance. Such a ranking is contrary to the controversial merit-based teacher pay system Scott urged the Legislature to adopt last year that at least aims to ascertain a teacher's value in improving students — not just their final test scores.

The Times compared school districts' FCAT scores between 2001 and 2010 to understand which districts appear to be doing the best job at improving performance. The results are sobering for Tampa Bay. In all four counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando — children who receive free or reduced-price lunches are improving at a slower rate in both reading and math than their statewide counterparts.

In Pinellas, white, black and Hispanic students are all improving at a slower rate in math and reading than their statewide counterparts, and it's particularly acute among minority students. Exactly why is far from clear. Pinellas remains one of the more affluent urban districts in the state, with a smaller percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. And its racial makeup mirrors Palm Beach County, which has shown greater improvement. Even educators are at a loss to explain why besides noting that the decade has brought extraordinary turmoil in school assignments and district leadership in Pinellas, a once much-touted district that has lost much of its luster.

But how the district got here is less important than where it is going. As the School Board anticipates a national search to fill the job held by superintendent John Stewart, a premium should be put on finding a leader who has a strategy to reduce the improvement gap.

The same disappointing improvement trend holds true in Hillsborough. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia cites high gains among the lowest-performing students and extraordinary enrollment growth, particularly in non-English-speaking students. The challenge for Elia and the entire district is to ensure that the reforms they are embracing in the name of improving teacher quality translate to greater gains for students.

Education is never as simple as a test score. Nor is the solution. But a decade after then-Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through the controversial A+ Plan, FCAT scores over time can suggest where more work needs to be done. This should be a wake-up call to Tampa Bay, and particularly leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough. A strong public school system is key for the region's future success. Ensuring our students at least keep pace with their Florida peers is essential.