By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Hidden in all the good news out of last week’s FCAT results is the continued dismal performance of high school readers.
Judging from the buzz that came from Gov. Jeb Bush’s office last week, there was nothing but good news in the latest round of fourth- through 10th-grade FCAT scores.
Seventy percent of public elementary school students are reading at grade level or above, up from 54 percent in 2001. And middle school students posted a “single-year record increase.”
But the governor’s office was silent about the continuing deterioration of 10th-grade reading scores.
Since 2001, the number of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has dropped from an already dismal 37 percent to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the number of 10th-graders reading at Level 1 — the lowest level on a scale of 1 to 5 — has jumped from 31 to 38 percent.
That means fewer than one in three Florida students who were in third grade when Bush’s high-stakes accountability program began in 1999 are meeting state standards.
Scores in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties mirror the state trend, with the percentage of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above slipping from 47 to 36 percent in Pinellas and from 42 to 35 percent in Hillsborough.
The erosion has district and school administrators grasping for answers.
Cathy Fleeger, an assistant superintendent in charge of Pinellas high schools, said the 10th-grade decline could be connected to the district’s increased efforts to improve graduation rates.
It’s possible that more low-performing 10th-graders are taking the test and pulling the scores down, Fleeger said. She also noted that until recently, students haven’t been receiving reading instruction beyond seventh grade.
“As they hit 10th grade, they haven’t had a reading course for three years,” Fleeger said.
Mike Grego, Hillsborough’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, rattled off a host of possible factors for the 7-point decline over time in his district: more students staying in school, greater numbers of students with disabilities being tested, and larger percentages of students learning English as a second language.
“I don’t read those as an excuse,” said Grego, who plans to go over the test results to find areas to improve. “We want to do better. We want to continue to advance.”
Even the state Department of Education is searching for answers. Department spokeswoman Cathy Schroeder said the problem may be rooted seven years in the past, when today’s 10th-graders were in third grade.
“A lot of them may have been struggling readers when they graduated from third into fourth grade,” she said. “Because we didn’t have (retention) measures in place, they may have been promoted when they weren’t ready.”
Paul Reville, a lecturer on educational policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the downward trend in Florida’s 10th-grade scores may not reflect an academic shortcoming as much as an attitude problem.
“It’s always crucial to see how students perceive the stakes,” Reville said. “If they’re motivated to take the test, it will increase their performance.”
School districts are not counting on attitude changes. Over the years, both Pinellas and Hillsborough have poured millions of dollars into getting students up to speed for the FCAT, employing methods ranging from before- and after-school instruction to high-tech diagnostics.
Both districts have implemented federal and state programs that have allowed more opportunities for educators to spend time with struggling students. Reading courses have been added for children at the lowest achievement levels. And even with a looming budget deficit, the Pinellas
School Board voted in March to maintain a contractual agreement with Kaplan Inc., an education company that sold the district a multimillion dollar computerized system for assessing academic progress.
Despite all the effort, the decline this year in 10th-grade reading scores is startling.
In Pinellas, 10 of 16 traditional high schools posted the fewest number of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above in six years of testing.
Fewer than one in three 10th-graders is reading at grade level at seven schools, and students at 11 schools are not reading as well as they were last year.
In Hillsborough, seven of the district’s 23 traditional high schools posted the fewest number of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above this year. Fewer than one in three 10th-graders are reading at grade level at 13 of the schools, and 10th-graders at nine schools are not reading as well as they were last year.
The steepest drop in Pinellas came at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. The number of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above fell 15 percentage points this year. The number of students reading at the lowest level increased 9 percentage points.
Lakewood assistant principal Denise Joiner said the decline could be related to staff changes.
“A lot of teachers have retired and many have transferred,” Joiner said. “A new principal came in last year. Plus, we’ve had an increase in enrollment.”
At Plant City High School, where the number of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above has dropped 14 percentage points since 2001, principal David Steele said retention policies could be a factor.
“Five years ago, it was harder to get promoted from ninth to 10th grade,” he said. “It impacts a grade-level score because what you have then is a slightly less prepared 10th grade.”
Steele said he is not satisfied to have just 29 percent of his 10th-graders making the mark this year, but he questions the significance of year-to-year FCAT fluctuations.
“I don’t think there’s any statistical significance at all,” he said. “We’re just starting to see kind of a leveling off in 10th grade.”
Lewis Curtwright, an assistant principal at Countryside High School in Clearwater, said his school’s 4 percentage point drop in the number of 10th-graders reading at grade level or above could be a “statistical variation.”
“We’re a large school,” Curtwright said. “Any time you have a large population, you’re going to have more variation.”
Paula Nelson, an assistant principal at Boca Ciega High in St. Petersburg, said the school’s 4 percentage point drop could be due in part to an increased special education population. But she also pointed out that low scores on the FCAT don’t necessarily mean students can’t read.
“Some kids retain what they’ve read well enough to take the test,” Nelson said. “Their scores refer to how well they did on the test, not to whether they can or cannot read.”
Looking to the future, Nelson said she has high hopes for the increased focus on reading in middle school.
“We started seven years ago with third grade,” she said. “Now middle school is putting in a big push. We’ll benefit from all of this at the high school level if we keep doing what we’re doing.”
Fleeger, the Pinellas superintendent, also expects recent middle school reforms will eventually improve high school performance. A new School Board policy that will require fifth- and eighth-graders to demonstrate “adequate reading ability” to get promoted should help identify struggling students while there’s still time to turn things around, Fleeger said.
“We’re hoping that these things will provide that extra help, specifically in reading, so we can start seeing this downward trend reverse itself,” she said.
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report.