Third-grade reading scores take historic fall

Nearly 3, 000 are in jeopardy of not going on to fourth grade.

Published May 3, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough's third-grade reading scores dropped precipitously this year, mirroring a troubling state trend in FCAT results released Wednesday.

This year, 67 percent of Hillsborough third-graders are reading at grade level, a drop of 6 percentage points. That's the greatest annual decline since third-graders began taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2001.

The stakes are highest for the nearly 3, 000 Hillsborough students who scored at the lowest level in reading. They could be held back from fourth grade. The percentage of students in that category is up 4 points from last year.

"We're obviously concerned, " said John Hilderbrand, Hillsborough's testing director, who is reviewing the school-by-school results to identify trends.

While Hillsborough's third-grade reading declines mirrored the state's, the district fared slightly worse overall. Sixty-nine percent of Florida third-graders met the FCAT's reading standards, which is 2 percentage points higher than in Hillsborough.

Hilderbrand questioned whether the problem was with third-graders, or the test itself. By another measure, given at the same time as the FCAT, third-grade reading scores improved.

Is FCAT harder?

The other assessment, the Norm-Referenced Test, compares Florida to the nation. It found that Hillsborough's third-graders read well above average - at the 61st percentile nationally - up from the 59th last year.

"It tells me that the kids are not worse than last year, " said Hilderbrand, who wondered if changes to the third-grade FCAT may have made it harder.

Florida Education Department officials insisted nothing of the sort happened. Some test questions are switched out every year, but they said the overall difficulty level does not change.

They also said it's possible that one year's class of third-grade students could be smarter than another's. State officials found the 2006 class scored significantly higher than their 2005 peers - about 4 percentage points - on questions that showed up on both years' tests.

"It was very compelling evidence, " said Cornelia Orr, the state's testing chief, that the 2006 cohort "did achieve higher."

But the theory didn't hold true in math, where this year's third-graders outperformed last year's supposedly smarter class.

Statewide, 74 percent of students met grade-level expectations in math, up 2 points from last year. In Hillsborough, 72 percent of students hit the mark - an increase of 3 points.

Graduation hurdle

The reading declines overshadowed the other news in the test scores released Wednesday, including pass rates for 12th-graders who had yet to meet the FCAT graduation requirement.

Few of the high school seniors did well. Just 16 percent of the 1, 500 Hillsborough test-takers passed reading. Twenty-nine percent of 570 seniors cleared the FCAT graduation hurdle in math.

Like third-graders, seniors who fail the FCAT have other options. If they do well enough, high school students can substitute scores from the ACT or SAT college entrance exams. Third-graders can attend summer reading camps and show their abilities in a portfolio of their work.

Schools also may feel the pinch of the third-grade declines when school grades are issued in the coming weeks, though test scores of students with disabilities and those still learning English are discounted in that calculation.

Among the schools seeing large declines was Cleveland Elementary, where only 38 percent of third-graders met grade-level expectations in reading. That was a 30 percent drop from last year.

On the upside, Riverhills Elementary logged a 13 percent increase, with 60 percent of third-graders reading at grade level.

Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this story. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3440.