Florida's third graders got the long-awaited word Friday whether they passed the state reading test that affects whether they move into fourth grade.
For many, the news was good.
Statewide, 58 percent of third grade students scored a Level 3 or higher on the annual exam, meaning they met grade-level expectations. That's up from 54 percent a year earlier.
Another 23 percent earned a Level 2, meaning they need extra help but still move on.
The remaining 19 percent — about 43,300 children — scored at the lowest level and, as a result, face the prospect of being held back unless they can receive a good cause exemption. Those can include passing an alternate test or demonstrating mastery of the standards through a portfolio of classroom work.
Last year, 22 percent logged in at Level 1.
Results for school districts in the Tampa Bay area were similar to the statewide outcome. Counties with higher levels of wealth, such as St. Johns and Nassau, continued to lead the state's performance while poorer districts, including DeSoto, Gadsden and Hamilton, continued to lag.
More test results for other grades and subjects will be released through the week of June 8. School grades come later in the summer.
But the third grade scores arrive first, because they carry the most weight. Those high stakes have caused a great deal of controversy.
Florida's third-grade promotion law, touted by former Gov. Jeb Bush and copied in several other states, has been the subject of a court challenge by parents who argued their children should be able to move into fourth grade with one of the exemptions — even if they have no test score at all.
A Leon County judge agreed with them, but the parents lost on appeal. They've now requested a review in the Florida Supreme Court.
Democratic lawmakers tried to remove the mandatory retention language from statute this spring, but the bills never received a hearing, even as the Legislature made noises about reducing state-mandated tests.
With no changes, districts continue to determine exactly how they will evaluate the students who scored poorly or refused to take the test.
Judith Cosh, principal of Gulf Highlands Elementary School in Pasco County, said she planned to call the parents of all her school's 116 third graders to let them know how they did.
"They're sitting on pins and needles," Cosh said.
Her school has been under the gun to improve its state testing outcomes, having earned only D and F state grades since 2013.
This spring, Gulf Highlands showed a 10 percentage-point improvement in students at Level 3 or higher on third-grade reading. Cosh said it took time to find and implement the right teaching practices, while also building students' confidence.
She expected to spend the coming weeks working with families whose children did not do well, seeing if they qualify for an exemption or how they might proceed from here.
Four other Pasco County schools facing state-mandated turnaround plans also saw reductions in the percentage of students at Level 1, the lowest performance rung, on the reading test.
In Pinellas County, the scores show steady improvement district-wide over the last three years. This year, 56 percent of third graders achieved at Level 3 or higher compared to 53 percent last year and 52 percent in 2015.
Schools in the new Transformation Zone, which get extra support, still were among the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas. Of the eight schools, half improved their scores. The others dropped.
Like the state, Hillsborough's passing rate went up by four points between 2016 and this year. And as last year, Hillsborough's rate was two points behind the state's.
At the district's Elevate schools, which were targeted for intensive improvements, some passing rates improved while others held steady.
At Elevate schools Edison and Miles, the third-grade passing rates improved dramatically — from 20 to 33 percent and from 25 to 33 percent respectively. Sulphur Springs K-8 School saw a three-point improvement, while Potter Elementary showed a slight rise and Booker T. Washington Elementary saw its pass rate decline four points.
Mort Elementary, which became a community school in a separate improvement endeavor, saw a three-point decline in the passing rate.
In Hernando County, the percentage of students at Level 3 or higher was the highest in the Tampa Bay area, and a slight improvement over the previous two years.
"When you provide educators with accurate information, quality resources and time to develop engaging and effective lessons, students will achieve," Hernando superintendent Lori Romano said in a statement. "Success is not magic — it happens when there is a commitment to bring your best each day, and when we foster a respect for the partnership between administrators, teachers, students and parents."
Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick, Marlene Sokol and Dan DeWitt contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.
By the numbers
Below is a look at third-grade passing rates for reading among schools in the Tampa Bay area and the state, and in two counties — St. Johns and DeSoto — that had starkly different results.
Hernando: 61 percent
Hillsborough: 56 percent
Pasco: 60 percent
Pinellas: 56 percent
State: 58 percent
St. Johns: 80 percent
DeSoto: 31 percent
To see the full results, visit fldoe.org/accountability/assessments/k-12-student-assessment/results/2017.stml
Source: Florida Department of Education