Pinellas posts big gains in FCAT writing, stay flat in reading and math
State and local education officials are touting gains in FCAT writing scores released Friday as a big win for students in the Tampa Bay area and across the state, but that praise does not extend to students’ performance in the math and reading portions of the test.
Educators attribute the improvement in writing scores among fourth, eighth and 10th-graders to the integration of more holistic teaching methods introduced to prepare for the move from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to a new standardized test tied to the more rigorous Common Core curriculum.
“We are celebrating today,” Pinellas County Schools Superintendant Michael Grego said at a press conference at Starkey Elementary School, which posted significant year-over-year increases.
Sixty percent of Pinellas County fourth-graders who took the test scored a 3.5 out of six possible points – the threshold considered satisfactory or better on the writing test. Last year, 48 percent of Pinellas students hit that mark, according to the state Department of Education.
Statewide, that number jumped by nine percentage points to 57 percent.
Meanwhile, 54 percent of Pinellas eighth-graders scored a 3.5 or better, compared to 46 percent last year, while 10th-graders saw their writing scores jump six percentage points to 67 percent.
Students in Hillsborough and Pasco counties also posted gains in their writing scores, though, as was the case in Pinellas and across the state, the increases were most dramatic among fourth-graders.
“It’s actually the result of a lot of hard work, attention to detail [and] a lot of very intentional professional development and training on good writing,” said Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, speaking at Starkey Elementary Friday.
Writing scores among Starkey Elementary’s fourth-graders jumped 33 percent from 2012 to 2013, an accomplishment Bennett described as “an example of what happened across our state.” Statewide, fourth-grade writing scores increased by 9 percentage points year-over-year.
The scores released Friday are the first FCAT results the state has released this year; more are expected in the coming week, including school grades.
State and local school officials credit changes made in preparation for the Common Core curriculum, which aims to set national standards that will help students advance into higher education and better compete in the global economy.
Florida won’t move to the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College Career Test until the 2014-2015 school year, meaning students have one more year of FCAT. Many schools, though, have already started adopting practices consistent with Common Core, which stresses writing and literacy, and school officials say the results are evident in this year’s writing scores.
“It’s about writing across all curricula,” said Susan Graham-Taylor, principal of High Point Elementary School in Clearwater.
Even though 92 percent of the school’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty, High Point saw a 31 percentage point gain in its writing scores.
A new training program at some Pinellas schools emphasized a more workshop-like approach to teaching kids how to write, Graham-Taylor said.
“It’s a process,” she said. “It just deeply engages the children in writing when they develop a piece of writing.”
Differences between this year’s test and last year’s have led to questions about whether other factors are at play in the improved scores.
The writing prompt, for example, is substantially different. Last year’s prompt for fourth-graders asked them to describe what it would be like to ride a camel. This year’s asked students what they would like to win and why. Students also had an extra 15 minutes to write their essays.
The new question was meant to be more accessible, Graham-Taylor said.
“A lot of my children have never seen a camel,” she said.
While the state saw improvements in writing scores, third-grade reading and math scores remained relatively flat compared to last year.
Statewide, 57 percent of students tested at a satisfactory level or better in reading – one percentage point better than last year and the same as 2011. Math scores stayed the same at 58 percent.
Pinellas was one percentage point behind the rest of the state in reading and 10 points behind in math. In Hillsborough County, 56 percent of students scored at a satisfactory or better level in reading, while 54 percent hit that mark in math. Both marked a 1 percentage point decrease from 2012. In Pasco County, 57 percent of students scored satisfactory or better in reading and 51 percent in math – both up 1 percentage point from last year.
Several Pinellas elementary schools singled out by the school district for their dramatic writing score increases remained flat or saw significant drops in reading and math. Bear Creek Elementary in St. Petersburg, for example, went from 26 percent of students at a satisfactory or better level in writing last year to 57 percent this year but dropped 11 percentage points in reading and 9 percentage points in math. Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater saw a jump of 34 percentage points in writing but dropped 9 points in reading and 6 points in math.
The stagnant reading and math scores across the state show there’s more work to be done, Bennett said.
“I am a person that doesn’t think that static scores are ever acceptable,” he said.
“Frankly, a one-point gain in reading is not where I want to be. That’s not the headline, but we should keep that in mind.”