Manatee County scores suffering on first wave of FCAT results

eearl@bradenton.comMay 25, 2013 

MANATEE -- More than half of third-grade students in Manatee County failed math and reading on the FCAT this year, according to state test scores released Friday.

Only 49 percent of third-graders had passing scores, down from 50 percent in 2012 and 52 percent in 2011.

And while the percentage of satisfactory math scores are up from last year, those satisfactory scores are still below 50 percent.

"We have the need to bring everyone up in performance," said school board chair woman Karen Carpenter. "These were much harder tests this go-around, with a different set of rigor and standards."

While the district as a whole is showing half of the students failing, some individual schools in the district showed good results. Anna Maria Elementary topped all Manatee District schools in both reading and mathematics with 86 percent of its students scoring a level 3 or above in reading and 80 percent of its third-graders scoring a level 3 or above in mathematics. Other elementary schools that posted impressive scores in reading include Witt and Williams Elementary Schools, with 70 percent of their third-graders scoring a level 3 or above in reading.

"We do have some bright stars, but I know Manatee County has the ability to have many more bright stars," deputy superintendent of instruction Diana Greene said in a news release.

Greene, who did not return calls to the Herald, told Carpenter the test scores offer a baseline for student performance.

Scores have plummeted

since FCAT 2.0 was introduced in 2011. State education officials said the new test was necessary to make sure students leave high school prepared for college or the workforce.

The performance levels in the state of Florida are up as a whole for the writing test, but Manatee County is still hovering around a passing rate of 45 to 51 percent for fourth-, eighth- and tenth-graders.

In Manatee County, fourth and eighth grade saw a slight increase in writing scores, but the passing rate of high school sophomores decreased from 54 percent to 51 percent.

Changes in the test and the scoring system for the FCAT writing exam took a toll on the entire state last year, with student performance dropping from about an 80 percent passage rate to only about a third of students passing. The state responded by passing an emergency rule that lowered the required passing score, which led to better student passage rates.

This year, the satisfactory score in writing went back up from a 3 to a 3.5.

The performance levels in the state of Florida are up as a whole for the writing test, but Manatee County is still hovering around a passing rate of 45 to 51 percent for fourth-, eighth- and tenth-graders.

In Manatee County, fourth and eighth grade saw a slight increase in writing scores, but the passing rate of high school sophomores decreased from 54 percent to 51 percent.

Tony Bennett, the state's education commissioner, said a variety of factors led to improved scores, including more relatable writing prompts and an extra 15 minutes of test time.

The writing prompt last year for fourth-graders asked students to write what is it like to ride a camel in the desert, which was widely criticized. This year, students were asked to describe the feeling of winning an award.

"That topic is more accessible, and easier to write with supporting detail," Chancellor of public schools Pamela Stewart said.

Still, Stewart said, the writing component of the FCAT is more difficult, with more emphasis on grammar, supporting evidence and details.

"We have raised the bar," she said.

Bennett said that each district will need to evaluate their own scores, investigate declines and review the data.

In 10th-grade writing, 67 percent of Lakewood Ranch students scored 3.5 or above

In eighth-grade writing, 56 percent of Haile Middle's students scored 3.5 or above. At both Nolan and Braden River Middle Schools, 55 percent of eighth-graders scored 3.5 or above

At McNeal Elementary, 81 percent of fourth-graders scored 3.5 or above.

Carpenter said that the reason there are high performing individual school scores yet low percentages for the district is that everything is averaged in for a composite score.

"You need to look at every single school and identify specific learning problems and needs," Carpenter said.

Carpenter said she and Greene advocate using additional resources to improve scores and performance. Greene told Carpenter that students who score a 1 on the FCAT may attend a state-mandated summer school. Carpenter recommends that community volunteers get involved to help.

Stewart said that people need to keep in mind that scoring below a 3 on the FCAT does not mean that the student is illiterate.

"The test is not just about basic literacy," Stewart said. "It involves text complexity, comprehension and the ability to make inferences."

Still, Stewart said, scoring below a 3 is not a good sign of academic health and is an indicator that the student is performing below grade level.

Bennett said overall, he is not satisfied with statewide results.

"Each district should take special notice and drill into the data, and be willing to come up with improvement plans," Bennett said.

Carpenter said that the district's current financial troubles may have been a distraction during FCAT testing, but she said that's "a big maybe."

"It probably is a factor," Carpenter said. "There is uncertainty around what is going on, and teachers do not feel particularly secure or comfortable."

Bennett hopes that when Florida moves forward with the Common Core standards, there will be improvement in scores.

"I would like to see improvement in student readiness," Bennett said.

There are more scores to come, and the Department of Education is currently working on a list of the highest and lowest performing districts.

School letter grades are set to be released in July, and schools that repeatedly receive D or F grades can be forced to change their administrators and teachers, or even close altogether.

Schools will distribute students' individual FCAT results to parents later this year.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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