Students hold pace with state on tests


Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:29 p.m.

Alachua County high school students are outscoring their peers at the state level on end-of-course exams, while performance in the county and throughout the state on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was relatively flat this year, according to results released Friday by the Florida Department of Education.

In a conference call, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett called the statewide results a "mixed bag."

"I don't want to overstate our happiness in how we perceive the EOC results," said Bennett, adding the department also was disappointed in the FCAT scores.

In the second year of the new, tougher FCAT 2.0, Bennett said he had hoped to see bigger improvements over last year's scores. But for FCAT reading, math and science in grades 4 to 10, state averages for students who scored level 3 or higher, which is considered satisfactory performance, mostly hovered between 50 percent to 60 percent.

Bennett conceded that the stagnation in scores just a year after introducing the tougher test didn't necessarily mean that students were not improving.

"What we saw this year wasn't a disaster," he said. "It's not like our kids bottomed out."

Hershel Lyons, deputy superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, was a little more positive.

"One thing that we would never say is that we are comfortable with (flat scores)," although the district is more concerned with individual progress, he said.

In general, Lyons said he's pleased with Alachua County high schoolers' performance, and analyzing the lower grades' scores will help instructors determine how to better help students get a good foundation.

"We all know the foundation is the most important piece," he said.

In FCAT reading, 60 percent of Alachua County fourth- and fifth-graders achieved a satisfactory score, along with 59 percent of sixth-graders, 56 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders and 57 percent of ninth-graders.

Fifty-nine percent of Alachua County 10th-graders scored level 3 or above on FCAT reading, the minimum score required to graduate from high school. The state average is 54 percent.

FCAT math results were slightly lower but still near the state averages, with 60 percent of Alachua County fourth-graders, 55 percent of fifth-graders, 53 percent of sixth-graders and 51 percent of seventh-graders scoring level 3 or better.

Results for eighth-graders were a different story.

As part of Florida's transition to the Common Core Standards — a set of assessments that eventually will replace the FCAT — end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology already have supplanted FCAT math and science exams.

Eighth-graders, however, have the option of taking either FCAT math or the Algebra I end-of-course exam.

In Alachua County this year, a little better than a quarter of all eighth-graders took the Algebra I exam. Unlike in other districts, the students were not required to take FCAT math as well.

The two tests produced a split: 98 percent of eighth-graders passed the Algebra I exam, while only 39 percent of the remaining eighth-graders passed FCAT math with a 3 or above.

The split is a symptom of the transition to Common Core and essentially means that the strongest math students took the algebra exam, while students who struggle with math made up the bulk of those who took the FCAT.

Lyons said parents shouldn't be alarmed by the performance gap.

"We take pride in allowing students to take the most advanced course that they are capable of performing well in," he said.

Across the board, Alachua County students fared better than their peers statewide on science exams.

Fifty-nine percent of Alachua County fifth-graders and 51 percent of eighth-graders scored 3 or above on FCAT science. State averages were 53 percent for fifth-graders and 47 percent for eighth-graders.

But the best performance overall was on the biology course exam.

Seventy-three percent of all high school students in Alachua County passed the biology exam, 6 percentage points above the state average of 67 percent.

Seventy-three percent of Alachua County students in grades 7 to 12 passed the geometry end-of-course exam, and 66 percent of students in the same grades passed the Algebra I exam.

The percentage of students locally who passed the U.S. history end-of-course exam was not released on Friday, but the mean score for Alachua County high schoolers was 50, on a scale of 20 to 80.

In addition to passing FCAT reading in 10th grade, students who entered high school in fall 2012 are now required to pass the algebra, geometry and biology end-of-course exams in order to graduate from high school.

Passing the U.S. history exam isn't required yet; however, the exam counts for 30 percent of students' course grade, and passing the course is required for graduation.

Bennett said the end-of-course results are promising for next year, when the state will perform a "full frontal assault" on Common Core preparatory curriculum.

More end-of-course exams likely will be phased in with the 2013-14 academic year, and full implementation of Common Core will come in 2014-15.

Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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