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Florida’s Alarming Reading Scores: Third-Grade Test Shows Only 1 in 4 Proficient

In Florida, the 3rd grade reading exams are key, typically requiring 3rd graders to earn a passing grade in order to move on to 4th grade

Two students in elementary school reading books at their desk
About 25 percent of 3rd graders tested in Florida could read “proficiently” on a recent assessment. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
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New results from Florida’s 3rd grade reading exams statewide aren’t good, showing that only about a quarter of kids tested in public schools could read proficiently, meaning they scored a 4 or 5 on the crucial exam.

Even by a more liberal analysis by the Department of Education — one that allows kids to pass the exam with the traditional score of at least a 3 — shows a concerning picture: Just 53 percent of 3rd graders could pass the 2022 reading exam, down from 54 percent the year before, according to statewide averages.

In fact, the state’s data shows some stagnation: The 2022 results are the same as the 3rd grade reading results back in 2015, likely in part of the COVID pandemic.

“Teaching our children to read at grade level by grade 3 is the underpinning to every student’s pathway to lifelong success, and it is why the Grade 3 reading results decline is troubling,” Patricia Levesque, executive director of Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a written statement responding to the reading results.

Foundation for Florida’s Future is an education-focused non-profit founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

In Florida, the 3rd grade reading exams are key, typically requiring 3rd graders to earn a passing grade in order to move on to 4th grade.

The results are also crucial as students move through the school system. Reading becomes a foundational tool for the rest of a student’s school career in every subject after entering the fourth grade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A reading score of 3 is not “proficient”

Keep in mind that 3rd grade reading scores of at least a 3 represent a passing score but it’s only a “satisfactory” effort, meaning, a student “may need additional support for the next grade/course,” according to the Department of Education.

Only scores of 4 are considered at least proficient –“likely to excel in the next grade/course.”  And a score of 5 is considered mastery — that is “highly likely to excel in the next grade/course.”

In the Florida Department of Education’s analysis, 19 percent of 3rd graders were considered proficient on the 2022 reading exam; only 6 percent showed a mastery of the subject. Those two categories combined show about 25 percent of students were at least proficient or higher on the exam in 2022, down from 26 percent in 2021, based on statewide averages.

Of Florida’s 67 school districts and a handful of lab schools and other entities., the percent of proficient 3rd grade readers in 2022 ranged from 51 percent to 4 percent.

The lab school connected to Florida State University had the highest figure for proficiency, according to department data, with 51 percent of 232 students earning a 4 or higher on the reading exam.

Of the standard 67 school districts, St. Johns, of North Florida, showed the highest percentage of proficiency of reading on the state exam — 41 percent of 3rd graders tested earned a score of 4 or higher.

Meanwhile, in Jefferson County, a small rural school district North Florida, 48 students took the 3rd grade reading exam. Only 4 percent  were considered at least proficient, the data show.

Meanwhile, only 10 percent of 3rd grade students in Gadsden County School District, also in the North Florida, were considered at least proficient, out of 327 students tested. Adding in students scoring a 3, Gadsden’s overall passing rate on the reading exam was about 27 percent.

“Although greatly disappointed with the 2022 FSA 3rd grade reading scores, we are not surprised,” Gadsden County Superintendent Elijah Key said in a written statement Friday, noting that schools are still bouncing back from difficulties and setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The 2021-2022 school year has been a year of 1) encouraging the return of students to face-to-face instruction and 2) doubling down on instructional strategies to move students past learning regression to targeted grade-level proficiencies. It is clear we have a lot of work to do, and the job of the Superintendent is to ensure everyone is prepared for the task at hand,” Key said in the written statement.

The Hillsborough County School District had 17,256 3rd graders take the reading exam in 2022, and 23 percent of the students earned a 4 or 5, meaning they were at least proficient. That was lower than the statewide average of 25 percent proficiency.

Tanya Arja, communication staffer with the district, said in an email to the Phoenix:

“Nearly 1,000 more third grade students were tested this year compared to last year and many of these students learned from home during some or all of 2020-2021. With now 99% of third graders tested this year, we are now finally getting a complete picture of the impacts that disrupted and at-home learning caused.”

Moving to another testing system

This is the last year that Florida students will take the Florida Standards Assessments exams, which include the 3rd grade reading exam, and the state’s education system will transition to a new, and controversial, statewide testing system that will use what’s called “progress monitoring” throughout the year.

Come next academic year, 2022-23, there will be three exams throughout the school year. Two of them are considered diagnostic exams to see how students are progressing. But the 3rd exam is the end-of-year cumulative and comprehensive assessment for reading and math.

The new assessment is called Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, or FAST. Some school districts feel it’s too early to predict how the transition from the FSA to statewide progress monitoring will affect reading scores in the future.

“At this point, it is too early to predict the impact of the new assessments,” according to a Miami-Dade communication staffer Jaqueline Calzadilla. “Next year will be a baseline year. We have to keep in mind there is always an adjustment period when we transition to new standards and assessments.”

Tanya Arja with the Hillsborough County school district said in an email to the Phoenix:

“Until students actually sit for the new test, we do not know how scores will change. We are likely going to see very similar results as the first year of this new test will be equated to spring 2022 FSA results.”

She said that the goal of progress monitoring setup is to boost student performance by getting “critical data into the hands of teachers more quickly to inform differentiated instruction and necessary interventions throughout the school year.”

The Foundation for Florida’s Future believes that the new progress monitoring testing system will help identify students who need additional support before the final assessment, according to a Friday email.

Bob Schaeffer is the executive director of FairTest, which promotes “fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools,” among other goals.

He is skeptical, saying that the new system will “increase a focus on boosting test scores as the primary goal of education, because the end-of-the-year test is what will matter for students, teachers, schools and districts.”

“The first two waves of assessment will be used to get kids ready for the big test,” Schaeffer said.

“It’s unlikely to be an improvement of educational quality, and further turns schools into test prep centers — where the primary focus is on the limited content that that standardized tests can measure. It will further encourage you to focus on the tested material, particularly reading and in math, and further divert attention away from other important parts of learning…and it’s likely to encourage more test-specific practice — turning classrooms into test prep factories.”

As for the final year of the Florida Standards Assessments, Schaeffer concluded:

“Good riddance. Unfortunately the replacement is not likely to be any better.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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