Third-grade math and reading scores on Florida's standardized test remained static this school year, with fewer than two-thirds of students demonstrating grade-level proficiency, according to results released Friday by the state Department of Education.
The scores show 57 percent of third-grade students performed at grade level in reading on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, up 1 percent from the previous school year. Fifty-eight percent achieved at or above grade level scores in math, the same as last year.
"Frankly, I think the flat performance in reading is something we should take special notice to, given our emphasis on reading," Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said.
He said the department will "drill into the data" with districts and come up with improvement plans. He also said he expects implementation of the Common Core standards, a set of uniform benchmarks Florida is currently putting in place, to raise scores as well.
The results for writing showed significant improvement: Fifty-eight percent of students in grades four, eight and 10 scored at a 3.5 or above, the standard used for schools grades. That's a 4 percent increase over the previous year. Eight-two percent scored a 3 or higher, the next marking point.
The test has undergone a number of changes in recent years, including higher performance standards. School grades were previously calculated based in part on the percentage of students scoring a 3 or higher; last year, the Board of Education raised that bar to a 3.5. Students were also given 15 more minutes to finish the writing exam.
Bennett said superintendents believe the additional writing time, improved prompts and Common Core standards contributed to the increase in test scores. Last year's fourth-grade prompt asked students to write a narrative about a camel ride, something the vast majority had never done.
This year's prompt asked students to write about winning something special.
"We did get anecdotal information back from superintendents that they did believe this year's prompt was more accessible to students," Bennett said. However, he added, "We don't want to hinge this year's results on the fact it was a different prompt."
Students in fourth grade saw the biggest jump; the percentage scoring a 3.5 or higher climbed from 48 to 57 percent. In 15 districts, fourth-grade students surpassed that average. Union County boasted the highest percentage — 81 — of fourth-grade students achieving a 3.5 or higher in writing.
Fourth-grade students in some of the state's largest districts, including Broward, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, Palm Beach and Pinellas, also had higher percentages of students reaching the 3.5 benchmark than the statewide average.
Gov. Rick Scott said he was pleased with the increase in writing scores.
"That means more and more Florida students are receiving a quality education," he said.
In third grade, the achievement gap remains stark: 71 percent of white students performed at or above grade level in reading, compared to 51 of Hispanic students and 38 percent of black students. There was a similar gap in math: 67 percent of white students scored at or above grade level, compared to 56 percent of Hispanic students and 41 percent of black students. The achievement gap shrunk just slightly and only for math.
Third-grade students must achieve a score of two or higher in reading in order to advance to the next grade. Twenty-nine percent of black students, 21 percent of Hispanic students and 10 percent of white students scored a one.
Florida will be transitioning to the Common Core standards in English language arts and math over the next two years. The FCAT and end-of-course exams in writing, reading and math will be replaced with new tests aligned to the standards.