Still, more than 45,000 third-graders may face repeating the grade next year. Statewide reaction is mixed.
By MATTHEW WAITE
Published April 20, 2004
Click here to view FCAT results and read county-by-county coverage
Florida still has a hard time teaching third-graders to read.
In the second year of an experiment to retain students based on test performance, the state said Monday that 22 percent of Florida's third-graders failed the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
That means more than 45,000 third-graders face repeating the grade next year unless they can prove reading ability through other means.
Last year, 23 percent of the state's third-graders failed the FCAT test. Two-thirds of those students were held back.
The first round of FCAT results included troubling news for about 10 percent of Florida's high school seniors, who failed a critical test that could cost them a diploma. All 12th-graders get six chances to pass an FCAT exit exam before graduation. More than 13,000 now have just one more chance to pass.
The scores for Tampa Bay area school districts mirrored the state results: Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties all had a one point improvement in their percentage of third-graders who failed reading.
Reaction statewide was mixed. Gov. Jeb Bush said the results were an indication that high standards are working. "What I want to see is good stuff going up, bad stuff going down, incrementally," he said. "This is going to take a long time."
Democrats in the Legislature said the results were "not much to crow about."
"While we are all pleased to see achievement creep up, these results show an inefficient system more concerned about a one-day test than yearlong learning," said House Democratic leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine. "Florida is not doing enough to help children succeed before they reach the third grade."
Two other legislators, Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, and Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, repeated claims that the state made the FCAT easier in this election year.
"If you don't have confidence in the test results because the test is flawed or because it was easier than last year - as some people have suggested - then you're just spinning off numbers that don't mean much," Klein said.
Bush dismissed the charge.
"That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard," he said.
Local educators were pleased to see improvements, but said too many third-graders still can't read.
"We always hope for better," said Pinellas superintendent Howard Hinesley, but "we're going to do everything we can to keep that trend moving forward."
"We're holding our own," Pasco County superintendent John Long said. "One percent is certainly nothing to get up and celebrate about, but it's a lot better than falling backward."
Buried in the blizzard of state numbers was the first information about the more than 28,000 third-graders who are repeating the grade this year. About 35 percent of them - or 8,300 students statewide - failed FCAT reading again. It's unknown how many will spend a third year in third grade.
Bush said he has heard from parents angry about their children being retained. He said he understands why they are upset.
But "if we don't measure, then we don't care," Bush said. "We've got to draw the line in the sand if we want to be sure that our children learn."
Third-graders who failed the reading test can still be promoted to fourth grade in the fall after passing other nationally recognized standardized tests. Others will reach fourth grade by completing a summer reading camp. Lawmakers also are considering a bill that would allow retained third-graders to catch up with their fourth-grade class midway through the school year by completing an aggressive remedial reading program.
A comprehensive breakdown of the failure rates by race was not available Monday.
Statewide, 66 percent of all third-graders now read at grade level. That's up from 63 percent last year. Among Florida's 67 school districts, 46 showed improvement, with 13 slipping and eight showing no change.
Of the 1,723 elementary schools that took the test this year and last, 957, or 56 percent, did better.
But 365 of the improving schools still had failure rates worse than the state average. Sixty-eight of those schools had more than 40 percent of their students fail the test. In 16 schools, a majority of third-graders failed.
There also were success stories.
At High Point Elementary School in Clearwater, the percentage of failing third-graders went from 28 percent in 2003 to 15 percent this year. Principal Archie Miller said the school has been targeting specific students.
"We try to be as individual as we can," Miller said. "We believe that the kind of things that we're doing are showing results."
At Yates Elementary School in Brandon, the percentage of third-graders failing the test went from 24 percent to 8 percent.
At Liberty City Elementary School in Miami-Dade County, the number of failing third-graders was cut nearly in half. Last year, 71 percent of students in the high-poverty school failed the reading test. This year, an entire third-grade class was made up of retained students.
This year, 36 percent failed the test.
"They made good progress this year," principal Susan Keye said. "I can't wait to see the individual student scores."
B.J. Smith, the principal at Anclote Elementary in Pasco County, received numbers that show 84 percent of her third-graders scored at grade level or above in reading. Only one other school in the district had better results.
But as a Title I school where 68 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, Anclote is under pressure to show testing gains among all of its student groups or risk federal penalties next school year.
None of that data was available to schools Monday.
Dave Dannemiller, principal of Pine Grove Elementary northwest of Brooksville, said he was thrilled that his school had improved its third-grade performance after extra teachers helped reduce third-grade class sizes.
"Unfortunately, we are still at 15 percent that (failed)," he said. "That is real children. We've got to work on that."
At Homosassa Elementary School in Citrus County, principal Roberta Long said the district and the state should be pleased with making even modest gains since many of the students facing retention are exceptional students with learning problems.
"These children struggle with learning and with reading," Long said. "If they make even incremental improvement, that's outstanding for them."
- Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, Jeffrey Solochek, Rebecca Catalanello, Logan Mabe, Tom Tobin and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.