MANATEE — More of Manatee County’s fourth-graders made the grade in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test writing exam this year, but the same can’t be said of 10th graders.
The results are consistent with those of their statewide peers, according to scores released Thursday.
Seventy-nine percent of local fourth-graders who took the test are considered proficient, compared to 70 percent last year. The number of 10th-graders scoring at grade level dipped to 71 percent this year from 74 percent last year.
The percentage of eighth-graders who are considered proficient went up 1 percentage point — to 86 percent this year from 85 percent last year.
But Manatee students are still behind their peers in the state.
Statewide, 85 percent of Florida’s fourth-graders passed the test, compared to 77 percent last year. Eighth-graders also showed improvement in the writing test: 90 percent of the students passed this year, up from 88 percent. Tenth-graders saw a slight drop in the percentage of students considered at grade level, down to 77 percent from 78 percent last year.
Students who receive a combined score of 3.5 are considered at grade level. Tests are scored on a range from 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest.
Officials nixed the multiple choice portion of the writing test this year. But every year, students are asked to write three kinds of essays. Expository writing requires students to explain something, narrative writing asks students to describe something and persuasive writing requires students to present an argument.
In Manatee, 28 out of 37 elementary schools, including charter schools, reported gains in the percentage of students passing the test. Three schools facing sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act saw the biggest gains.
Samoset Elementary saw an increase in the percentage of students passing the test, from 46 percent to 81 percent. Tillman and Oneco elementary schools reported similar gains, from 49 percent to 80 percent and 56 percent to 78 percent, respectively.
“I think we opened up a can and now we need to pour it out and look at it,” said Carla Frazier, the district’s supervisor of management and data. “We found something that’s working in our schools, and we need to explore further to see if we can put it in a box and give it to other schools.”
The gains made by the elementary and middle schools gave district administrators hope for similar improvement in reading scores, which will be released this month.
“We are anticipating the math, science and reading scores will reflect what is going on here,” said Tillman Elementary Principal Diane Nichols.
Nichols, who has been at Tillman for a year, attributed her school’s success in the writing test to a few strategies. About 90 percent of the school’s student population comes from low-income families.
Realizing that confidence is as important as remediation, she barred her students from saying “I can’t.”
“Words ‘I can’t’ are not acceptable,” she said.
She also formed a team that included a reading and math coach, and together they kept close tabs on struggling students. Last October, she started “flooding” her students with writing assignments.
“We make them write at every turn, and we utilized everyone in school to assist with it,” she said.
At Samoset Elementary, teachers broke down writing into small components for students, said Principal Scott Boyce. Students also were tested rigorously through monthly writing exams.
“We’re not teaching the test, but we’re checking to see what we need to teach them,” he said. “We’re guiding our instruction by testing students.”
How did high schools fare?
Out of the district’s 10 high schools, including charter schools, only Palmetto and Southeast high schools showed improvement in reading scores.
Seventy percent of Palmetto High’s 10th-graders passed the test, compared to 64 percent last year. Similarly, 69 percent of Southeast High’s students passed the test, compared to 67 percent last year.
Principal Mike Horne said Southeast High started the school year by focusing on writing.
“We were working real hard on the reading portion, but we were not making any gains there,” he said. “We thought maybe a different approach would help. Good readers are good writers so conversely good writers are good readers.”
This year, Southeast High teachers post “essential questions” to students in each lesson, he said. Students are asked to write out short answers and essays to the questions. The assignments are then scored and discussed among the teachers.
“We share best practices on how to get kids to a better level,” he said.
Palmetto Elementary, however, had a challenging year, said Principal Eddie Hundley.
Though the percentage of students who passed the writing test dipped from 74 percent to 68 percent this year, Hundley said he is pleased with the growth his students, especially the English language learners, have made. More than half of Palmetto Elementary’s students are categorized as non-native English speakers.
“We’re moving them along as a large group, especially for the kids who are just acquiring the language,” he said. “The numbers are all relative and we have to look at growth more so than final numbers.”
At Lakewood Ranch High, the percentage of students who passed the test dipped from 88 to 82 percent.
Mike Wilder, principal, said the drop does not alarm him. He said he was pleased with the number of students who scored 4 and above.
Last year, the school had two students get a perfect score on the test. This year, there were 14 students.
“Each class will be different,” he said. “It’s difficult to compare last year’s 10th-graders with, at the time, the ninth-graders.”