Palm Beach County’s public schools are falling further behind the rest of the state in one of their most crucial tasks: teaching third-graders to read at grade level.
The percentage of the county’s third-graders passing the state language arts exam rose two points this year to 54 percent, according to state test results released Friday.
But across Florida, third-grade proficiency improved at twice that rate, bringing the passing rate statewide to 58 percent and widening the gap with Palm Beach County.
County school district leaders acknowledged that third-graders’ reading performance continues to be a “soft spot,” pointing out that the school district trails nearby Broward and Miami-Dade counties and most other large counties in teaching third-graders to read.
“I have to be honest, we are below the state average still on third-grade reading,” said David Christiansen, the school district’s deputy superintendent. “That just is further ammunition that we’ve got to continue the work that we are presently doing.”
Educators consider reading proficiency by third grade to be critical to students’ long-term academic success since that is the point at which students are expected to pivot from learning how to read to using reading as a learning tool.
For that reason, state law requires third-graders who score at the lowest level on the Florida Standards Assessments’ language arts test to be considered for repeating third-grade.
Countywide, about 3,500 third-graders – 22 percent – earned the lowest score of 1 on a 5-point scale and are at risk of repeating the grade, although schools can still move them to fourth-grade by submitting other evidence of their reading proficiency. The percentage of students scoring at the lowest level is down three percentage points from last year.
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa made raising the county’s performance one of his foremost goals after he took office in 2015. Last year, he unveiled a strategic plan that sets the ambitious aim of raising third-graders’ reading proficiency levels to 75 percent by 2021.
Since he took office, the passing rate has ticked up three points, from 51 percent to 54 percent. But Christiansen said administrators expected only modest growth initially as they work to restructure the school system with the aim of improving reading.
“It does take time,” Christiansen said. “This is a very large system. We’re really trying to have sustainable progress, and sometimes it really is incremental and may not be as flashy.”
This year, Avossa reorganized the regional offices that supervise the county’s schools; called for teachers to hold regular team meetings at their schools; required all elementary students to receive reading tutoring through a new, adaptive software program called iReady; and reorganized the district’s $2.3 billion budget to push more resources directly to some of the poorest schools.
Christiansen said that administrators are still working to get some schools to fully embrace strategies that would help more struggling readers to improve, such as having two instructors in classrooms during reading time and more effective teaching in small groups.
The school district is also expected to announce an overhaul of its central office next month that is “focused around getting better results in this area,” he added.
In 16 of the county’s more than 130 public elementary schools, including charter schools, only a quarter or fewer students passed. Pahokee Elementary turned in the lowest performance in a district-run traditional school, with only 14 percent passing. That’s down 20 points from last year — the biggest drop at any school.
The top performing school was Morikami Elementary in Delray Beach, where 96 percent of students passed the reading exam. The second-highest: Wellington’s Binks Forest Elementary, at 90 percent.
The biggest gain was seen at Washington Elementary in Riviera Beach, where the passing rate skyrocketed from 17 percent to 46 percent.
Palm Beach County bills itself as the highest-rated of the state’s seven largest school districts. But when it comes to third-grade reading proficiency, its passing rate is second to last.
Miami-Dade County is the top performer with a 58 percent passing rate. Broward and Orange counties fall right behind that at 57 percent. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties hit 56 percent. Only Duval County performed worse than Palm Beach County, with a 51 percent pass rate.
Christiansen said the scores showed that there is still much work to be done to identify and aid struggling students from kindergarten through third grade.
“We don’t want to overreact to one data point,” he said. “But that being said, we’re very serious about this piece.”