Reading scores drop

Published May 3, 2007

Statewide, 69 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on the FCAT. That's down from 75 percent in 2006.

Third-grade reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test fell this year for the first time ever - and fell hard - putting thousands more third-graders at risk of being held back and focusing renewed attention on the reliability of standardized tests.

Sixty-nine percent of this year's third-graders are reading at or above grade level, down from 75 percent last year, according to results released Wednesday by the Florida Department of Education.

Perhaps more troubling: The number of students reading at the lowest level jumped from 14 to 19 percent, meaning more than 38, 000 of them are at risk of having to repeat third grade.

The unflattering results stand in stark contrast to last year, when Florida third-graders posted historic gains on FCAT reading and the state's education chief wondered if it was time to raise the bar.

Department officials said Wednesday that over time, dips and spikes in FCAT scores are to be expected. They also stressed long-term progress.

"We're going to see fluctuations. We've seen them in the past and we'll see them in the future, " Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg said. "What we need to do is look at the long-term success."

But the roller-coaster results gave critics new ammunition.

"If they're so attuned to the long-term trends, why do hundreds of millions of dollars depend on one or two years' test scores?" said Sherman Dorn, a University of South Florida professor who has written extensively about former Gov. Jeb Bush's education initiatives. Dorn was referring to Bush's school grading system, which remains in place and annually rewards high-performing schools with modest pots of bonus money.

The latest results show the FCAT is "not a precise accountability test, " said state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader. "Hopefully Gov. Crist will look at it and really decide that we need to review how we're using the FCAT."

Crist's immediate response: a two-paragraph statement that did not acknowledge the reading drop but alluded to a modest hike of 2 percentage points in math scores.

"As more third-graders perform at or above grade level in mathematics, we see evidence that holding schools accountable for student achievement improves student learning, " the statement said. "The future is bright for these students."

Also released Wednesday: retake scores for high school seniors who must pass the 10th-grade FCAT to graduate. Nearly 26, 000 of them retook the reading portion. Only 15 percent passed.

Wednesday's numbers were the second in what has become a routine series, with FCAT writing results released last week and data for other grades slated for later this month. But to FCAT observers who have come to expect ho-hum ups and downs in year-to-year test scores, the third-grade FCAT results have been anything but.

Last year, all 67 Florida school districts showed gains. This year, six did.

In Pinellas, 20 of 82 elementary schools recorded double-digit dips.

State education officials said there isn't a good explanation, yet. The department has looked at several potential factors, including a possible increase in students switching schools, but nothing panned out. At this point, Blomberg said, "we have not been able to analyze the data in the depth that we would like to."

One theory: Last year's third-graders were simply smarter, reading-wise.

A Department of Education analysis showed that last year's group did significantly better than their 2005 counterparts on reading questions that appeared on both years' tests, said Cornelia Orr, the state's testing chief. "It was very compelling evidence, " Orr said, that the class of 2006 "did achieve higher."

Some district officials were skeptical.

"I don't think you can just explain it away by saying ... 1998 was a really great year to be a baby, " said David Scanga, the research and evaluation director for Pasco schools.

Officials in Hillsborough wondered if the decrease had as much to do with the test as the students.

"I can't believe the whole state of Florida had a cohort of kids that just weren't as good, " said John Hilderbrand, Hillsborough's testing director. "There's usually pockets where you can say that is true, but not the whole state."

State officials insisted this year's FCAT was no tougher. While some test questions are switched out every year, the difficulty level is measured and does not change, they said.

For thousands of third-graders, FCAT failure will have real consequences.

State policy that went into effect in 2003 mandates that third-graders who read poorly be held back, unless they can demonstrate proficiency through other means, including other standardized tests or a portfolio of their work. Many of those students will be headed to summer school.

Wednesday's announcement did include a bright spot, but even the good news appeared likely to cause confusion.

A portion of the FCAT includes questions from another standardized test, which allows a national gauge on progress. This year, Florida third-graders, on average, scored 12 percentage points higher than the national average in reading, up from 11 percent higher last year.

But if FCAT reading scores are down, how can a national score be up? Orr said the tests put "two different lenses" on student progress.

It remains to be seen whether parents will understand.

Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Jeffrey Solochek, Donna Winchester and researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.

An excerpt from last year's test

Below is part of a passage from the 2006 FCAT third-grade reading test book, which was last used in March 2006 and released in August. Released tests can be seen at http://fcat.fldoe.org/fcatrelease.asp.

Third-grade FCAT math results

Percent of students performing at grade level or above.


2007 2006 Pct. point diff.
Statewide 74 72 +2 m
Citrus 78 79 -1 *
Hernando 76 78 -2 *
Hillsborough 72 69 +3 m
Pasco 68 67 +1 m
Pinellas 77 74 +3 m