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Hernando schools' message to parents after reading score downturn: Don't panic.

BROOKSVILLE - When the state Department of Education released results last month from a test that partly determines whether third-graders advance to the fourth grade, the statewide picture was much of the same. Twenty percent of Florida third-graders scored at Level 1 on the Florida Standards Assessment language arts test, meaning they faced retention. That was the same percentage as last year. Fifty-eight percent scored at or above Level 3, a benchmark that shows they're reading at grade level. That was within a percentage point of the last two years' marks.

But in Hernando County, the scores pointed to a new narrative and cause for concern.

The School District had shown steady improvement in recent years, going from 58 percent of students scoring Level 3 or above in 2016 to 62 percent last year. But its 2019 scores showed that number dropping to 57 percent, its largest dip in years. District-wide, 327 students, about 18 percent of the third-grade student body, scored at Level 1, up from 16 percent last year.

Nearly a quarter of students scored at Level 2, meaning they still came in below grade level but won't face retention.

On social media, parents wrung their hands over their children's scores and asked each other about options for exemption, which could help students move onto fourth grade even with low scores. Some community members questioned the integrity of the test or the abilities of teachers or district administrators.

School Board and district officials have said in recent weeks that they're taking the downturn seriously, but they've also suggested that one set of scores from one cohort of students is nothing to panic about.

"When you have something like this, it's a concern, but we don't know if it's a trend, and we hope it doesn't become a trend," School Board chair Susan Duval said. "You do that by taking a very close look at what you've done and how you've done it."

That means increasing focus on ways to help struggling students before they reach the crucial third-grade test, said Gina Michalicka, the district's director of academic services. Identifying students with reading deficits has been a point of emphasis for her team over the past year, she said, and that will continue, with support for students as early as the beginning of kindergarten.

She also plans for more regular, ongoing communication between schools and the parents of students who need reading support, she said. But parents shouldn't hesitate to speak up if they have concerns about their children's reading abilities, even if they haven't been identified as having deficits.

"Ultimately, the families need to reach out to the school, whether it's the principal or the teacher, and set up a meeting, because schools have that level of support," she said. "That student has to really close the gaps."

Unless later data shows a trend in falling reading scores, neither she nor Duval is looking toward major structural overhaul. It's hard to extract meaning from comparing different years' scores from a single test, Michalicka said, and it's not necessarily a surprise for a school district to see a one-year downturn after an upward trend. She sees no obvious culprit in this year's results. No major facets of the district's reading education or related support services changed between last year and this year, she said.

"I can't pinpoint, and I don't think principals can either ... that it's one or two things," she said.

Later in the summer, she said, principals will plan for school-level changes. A closer look at the testing data shows that a few schools maintained the progress of the past few years, with Moton Elementary School and Winding Waters K-8 making gains in Level 3-and-up scores and reducing Level 1 scores. Deltona, Floyd and Westside Elementary schools all held close to steady on higher scores while showing fewer Level 1 scores.

But there are wide gaps between schools' overall performances.

Moton, despite its improvements, still had nearly a third of its students score in Level 1, as did Eastside Elementary. At the other end of the spectrum, Chocachatti Elementary and Challenger K-8, both magnet schools, had slightly worse scores than last year but still saw more than three-quarters of their students score Level 3 or better.

District data also show that 117 students who scored at Level 1 last year repeated third grade this year, and 81 of those students scored at Level 2 or better in 2019. Of the students who scored at Level 1 this year, according to the data, 84 of them - more than a quarter - have repeated a grade in the past.

The district offers summer intensive reading camps for students who need additional help before retaking the i-Ready exam at the end of the summer. Those camps run through July 18, Michalicka said.

Duval is glad Michalicka's team didn't come to the School Board with a "knee-jerk" response to the test scores, she said. Both of them noted that information set to come later this summer - including other test scores and school grades - will give a better idea of how the district performed as a whole. In the meantime, Duval said, the third-grade scores demand that the district examine its policies and look for ways to improve.

"Should it have happened?" she said. "No. But why did it?"

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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