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Tampa Bay Area 3rd Grade Test Scores Better Than Expected Despite COVID-19

A pencil eraser sits on a Scantron answer sheet
Jenks Public Schools
For the first time in almost a decade, Pinellas County is even with the state in terms of third-grade students who received passing scores on statewide English Language Arts tests.

Third-graders across the greater Tampa Bay region only saw small changes in how they performed on statewide reading tests.

Every year, students in grades three through 10 take Florida Standards Assessments tests. The results provide information to parents, teachers, policy makers, and the general public about how well students are learning.

Local school leaders predicted the educational challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic would result in large learning losses.

But the first round of Florida’s spring testing results released this week told a different story.

“We didn't see that learning loss to the extent that it could have been there,” said Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services for Pinellas County Schools.

The assessments are divided into five grading levels, Level One being the lowest, and Level Five the highest. For all of the tests, Level Three indicates a satisfactory, passing performance.

Approximately 54 percent of Florida’s third-graders passed the English Language Arts exam with scores at or above the Level Three designation. In 2019, the last time the state tested, about 58 percent of third-graders passed.

“The state decreased four percentage points, which is a fairly large drop,” Hendrick said. “You don't normally see that much of a drop.”

But in Pinellas County, the passing rate only dropped by two percent.

For the first time in almost a decade, the county is even with the state in terms of third-grade students who received passing scores.

“Part of that is because more students returned to school in a more timely manner,” Hendrick said. “Part of it was because of the instruction that our teachers gave and making sure we didn't have gaps, even when we had students at home in quarantine using technology so they could be in the class.”

Other counties in the area also saw passing rate declines better than or equal to the state average.

Pasco and Sarasota saw a decline of four percent, Manatee two percent, Hillsborough one percent, and Hernando was unchanged.

While any decline in reading scores is typically lamented by school officials, the greater Tampa Bay region performed better than many other districts, some of which saw declines in their passing rate of up to 20 percent.

A chart shows data about Grade 3 English assessments from the State of Florida
Jacob Wentz / Florida Department of Education
Florida Department of Education
The passing score for the assessment is the minimum scale score in Performance Level Three. Florida school districts did not see large drops in outcomes on the third-grade reading test, despite concerns about a possible "COVID slide."

Officials also pay attention to the lower end of test scores.

“In 2019, the state average was 20 percent Level Ones, which is the lowest level of readers. We were 19. This year, the state was at 23 — we were at 21.” Hendrick said. “So we have more students closer to Level Three, and we're trending in the positive direction there.”

The state typically releases the third-grade English Language Arts scores before other test results as they help determine which children should remain in third grade.

Officials waived that requirement this spring because of the unusual school year.

But earlier this month, lawmakers approved legislation to help combat lagging learning gains during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, parents of public school students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be able to request that their children be retained in their current grade levels for the 2021-2022 school year.

“There was some legislation this year that gave parents some more power in that, that if they felt their child needed to be retained academically, they could ask for that,” Hendrick said.

“And we would agree to that. So those conversations occurred prior to the release of the test scores, and then the test scores really just confirmed those conversations that we had.”

While reading scores are relatively stable, Hendricks says FSA math scores will likely show a greater decline.

Those should be released by the end of July.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.
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