More may repeat third grade

Published May 3, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - About 950 Pasco County third-graders - that's 260 more than a year ago - might have to repeat the grade after failing the FCAT reading exam this spring.

Things look worst for Cox Elementary in Dade City, where fewer than half of the school's 85 third-graders performed at grade level on either the reading or math sections of the test. Last year, more than 60 percent of the school's third-graders were reading at grade level.

Cox is one of nine county schools facing sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act if it does not show overall improvement in student achievement this year.

FCAT results released Wednesday also showed that just 63 high school seniors passed the exit-level reading exam, of 347 who took it, and 63 passed the math section, of 185 who took it. The success rate on reading was up slightly, but still below 20 percent, while the math rate sank a bit to 34 percent.

The remaining FCAT scores are not expected for at least two weeks.

Most of the attention this year goes to the third-grade results because they went down after several years of increases.

State and local officials pointed to a continued upward trend since 2001, calling last year's results a "spike" that did not follow the otherwise smooth line of improvement. In Pasco, for instance, the outcome is better than that of 2005, though below last year's numbers.

This year, 19 percent of Pasco third-graders scored at the lowest level on the reading test. That's worse than the 14 percent of a year ago, but better than the 20 percent of 2005. In math, 14 percent received the lowest mark, improved from 15 percent a year ago and 17 percent in 2005.

"When you look at the scores over a six-year period the trend is moving in a positive direction and it's continuing that way. There was a spike in that trend last year, " superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.

She used Cox as an example. Though the school showed a one-year 17-point swing down in the percentage of children reading at or above grade level, it actually had a slow but steady increase since 2003, when just 35 percent of Cox third-graders were reading at grade level, Fiorentino noted.

That's despite having 95 percent of its students receiving free lunches and 89 percent having limited English abilities.

"We're not saying we don't have more work to do, " she said. "But they have moved up and that's a positive thing."

She and her staff did not buy into what some are calling the "cohort effect." That's where you explain away a year's results by saying the students were exceptional.

"I don't think you can just explain it away by saying ... 1998 was a really great year to be a baby, " said research and evaluation director David Scanga, who figured it would take some time to figure out why last year's third-graders did so well.

Fiorentino liked to look at several positive aspects within the test results. For instance, a majority of Pasco third-graders did better than the national average in reading and math on the Stanford Achievement Test section of the FCAT.

Also, Mary Giella Elementary reduced the percentage of lowest-performing students in reading to 11 percent from 24 percent; and Lacoochee Elementary saw its percentage of Level 1 readers drop to 9 percent, from 19 percent, while it increased the percentage of students at grade level or higher in math to 73 percent.

Pine View, Sand Pine, Longleaf and Trinity Oaks elementary schools continued to have success, with more than 80 percent of their students reading at or above grade level. Longleaf had just 1 percent of students at Level 1 in math, with 91 percent at grade level or above.

The state releases much less information about the senior retakes. No school by school results, for instance. Still, Pasco officials were heartened by the general improvement of the district passing rate, noting that those few who continue to take the FCAT as seniors are "our most struggling students" yet they have not dropped out.

Scanga added that a preliminary look at 11th-grade repeaters shows improvement in the passing rate, too. Most important, assistant superintendent Sandra Ramos said, is that Pasco sophomores succeed on the exit-level exam, which is first given in 10th grade.

"We want 10th-graders passing on the first time, " Ramos said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.