Monroe County ninth- and 10th-graders bested the statewide average in the reading component of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which was made harder to pass this year.
While half of Florida's sophomore class failed to reach grade level for FCAT 2.0 reading, 59 percent of Monroe County 10th-graders did earn the required passing score in order to graduate, according to results released Friday. Level 3 is a passing grade; level 5 would be a perfect score.
In 2011, 45 percent of Florida Keys' sophomores scored at or above grade level on the FCAT reading, while the statewide result was 60 percent.
More than 92,000 sophomores in Florida will have to retake the exam or do well enough on a college prep test in order to graduate on time.
Fifty-two percent of the state's ninth-graders passed the reading exam, while in Monroe County, 56 percent of freshmen hit passing levels of 3 on the five-level test.
Florida students are headed in the right direction when it comes to getting closer to reaching national academic standards, the state's top education official said Friday.
"We are asking more from our students and teachers than we ever have, and I am proud of their hard work," state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said. "Florida's higher standards help ensure students are learning what they are expected to know so that they are prepared for college, career, and life. As Florida transitions to higher standards and higher expectations, we can expect our assessment results to reflect those changes." Pressed by Florida news reporters over the statewide scores during a conference call Friday, Robinson said the FCAT remains a valid test that gives the state results it needs to make decisions.
"We were very clear that there would be a downtrend in the number of students who passed," said Robinson. "What we see isn't radically different than what we expected."
FCAT scores help determine graduation and class assignments for students, and also factor heavily into the state's A-F grading system.
Robinson would not use the word "fail" in answering questions Friday, but instead said that students scored at level 1 or 2.
When one reporter told him that the scores "sound terrible," he said that the state isn't happy with 50 percent scores, but he sees the students' performance as progress, not perfection.
Last year, 48 percent of ninth-graders and 39 percent of 10th-graders passed the reading exam.
The new FCAT was retooled and amped up in order to ensure that more students graduate ready for college or careers. In December, the state Board of Education approved raising the passing scores for reading and mathematics.
Superintendent Jesus Jara released a letter to the community warning that many Florida Keys students were likely to fail the new FCAT. When criticized at a School Board meeting for having low expectations, Jara said he was simply informing parents that the state had changed the rules in the middle of the school year.
"I'm happy where we are, but I'm not completely satisfied," said Jara. "There is always room for improvement."
But Jara said the raised scores threw the schools for a loop.
"The goal line can't keep moving," he said.
Earlier this week, the state Board of Education held an emergency meeting by phone to lower the passing scores on the writing exam, after early results had 73 percent of Florida's fourth-graders flunking.
At issue was that the new FCAT placed tougher standards on spelling and punctuation -- something that hadn't been emphasized before.
Big Pine Academy, a charter school with 18 fourth-graders, scored a perfect 100 percent at passing or above.
Following closely was another charter, Treasure Village Montessori, with 96 percent, and Stanley Switlik Elementary, with 91 percent at passing or above.
Sigsbee Charter's fourth-graders had the lowest writing scores, with only 49 percent passing at grade level.
Statewide, 81 percent of fourth-graders scored at level 3 or above in writing. Monroe County's average was 80 percent.
Florida's eighth-graders averaged a 78 percent passing or above rate, while the average in the Florida Keys was 77 percent.
In the 10th grade, 84 percent of the state's students scored at level 3 or higher; in Monroe County the average was 83 percent.
Agreeing with the state's last-minute writing score change was Big Pine Academy's Principal Cathy Hoffman, who said that in teaching writing, the emphasis has been on creativity, sentence structure and strength in composition.
Spelling and punctuation has always been taught but not emphasized, Hoffman said.
"We don't want to discourage them," Hoffman said. "If those scores had stayed, that could really have taken the starch out of some of these kids' sails."
The state's changes in grading the writing exam were just another example of the frustration generated by the FCAT in the classroom, said Hoffman.
"It's like trying to hit a moving target," Hoffman said. "It's impossible. There are teachers and students throughout the Keys working very hard."
Topping the 10th-grade results in reading were Coral Shores and Key West high schools, which both had 60 percent of students scoring at level 3 or above. Marathon High had 55 percent of sophomores at level 3 or higher.
Among the four high schools in the Florida Keys, the charter school Keys Collegiate School topped the freshmen reading results, with 82 percent of students scoring at passing or above levels.
At Coral Shores High, 62 percent of freshmen did the same, while the same result at Key West High was 53 percent and at Marathon High School it was 52 percent.