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County third-graders top the state average

Pinellas mirrors a statewide trend as the FCAT finds slightly more than three-quarters read at or above their grade level.

Published May 2, 2006

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Maria Cristobal, 9, of Leslee Hill's third-grade class at High Point Elementary School in Clearwater, lies on the floor as she reads a book during her reading time Monday afternoon. High Point was among eight Pinellas schools where third-graders improved 15 percntage points or more on the reading portion of the FCAT.

Pinellas County third-graders made impressive gains on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, mirroring a statewide trend and edging out other urban school districts.

Slightly more than three out of four are reading at grade level or above, based on test scores released Monday. That is 1 percentage point higher than the state average and 3 points higher than the performance of Hillsborough third-graders.

The increase in Pinellas, as well as the state, represents the largest gain in third-grade reading scores in the six years the FCAT has been administered.

"I think, generally, it's great news for us as a school system," superintendent Clayton Wilcox said. "All of the credit goes to our classroom teachers."

Wilcox also attributed the gains to a controversial curriculum change introduced in 2004 that requires teachers to narrow their instruction to material most likely to be on the FCAT.

"A lot of people don't like the common assessment," Wilcox said. "But I think it's helping us to focus on instruction and where we need to reteach and retool."

Monday's announcement of third- and 12th-grade reading and math scores followed last week's release of statewide writing scores. Fourth- through 10th-grade reading and math scores, as well as fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade science scores, are expected soon.

State Education Commissioner John Winn pointed to Gov. Jeb Bush's Just Read, Florida! program and the federal Reading First program as reasons for the overall success of third-graders.

"These third-graders are the first who have had the benefit of this over the past four years," Winn said. "We expect those gains to continue."

Among the high points of the third-grade results in Pinellas:

--The percentage of children reading at grade level or above improved at 71 of the district's 82 elementary schools.

--Eight schools showed gains of at least 15 percentage points, and three schools showed gains of 20 points or more.

--The number of third-graders performing at grade level in math also improved, jumping 3 percentage points to 74 percent, 2 points higher than the state average.

Besides the increase in the number of children reading at grade level, Wilcox applauded the schools for reducing from 20 to 14 percent the number of children reading at the lowest level. Third-graders in that group are in danger of being held back unless they can demonstrate in other ways that they can read.

According to last year's FCAT scores, more than half of the third-graders at six Pinellas schools were reading below grade level. This year, only one school was in that category.

Conversely, only four schools last year had 90 percent or more of their third-graders reading at grade level or above. That number grew to 10 this year.

Among the schools that showed improvement was Northwest Elementary in St. Petersburg, where the number of children reading at grade level jumped from 56 to 82 percent.

"We're really focused on tightening up our instruction," principal Benigna A. Pollauf said. "We're focused on those standards and what we expect our children to learn."

Marcia Stone, principal of Cross Bayou Elementary in Pinellas Park, credited a special program called "Student Achievement Institute" for the school's 15 percentage point gain in reading scores.

Each day, teachers work intensively with the children in a 90-minute block, Stone said. Using a model similar to the one used in the state's summer reading camps, they work closely with children to pinpoint their reading difficulties.

"It's total engagement of every child," Stone said. "Teachers are better able to meet the students' needs and teach them what they need to know."

The district's 12th-graders were not as successful as the third-graders.

Of the 882 who took the reading portion of the FCAT, only 17 percent passed. Of the 404 who took the math section, only 33 percent passed.

Those numbers correspond to state averages of 13 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Students must either pass the test, which is first administered in 10th grade, or demonstrate their proficiency on a similar test, to receive a standard diploma.

Wilcox said that while the group of seniors who still must pass the test has gotten smaller, it's become "tougher and tougher" to move it ahead.

"I think we're working about as hard as people can work," he said.

[Last modified May 2, 2006, 02:46:32]

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