Across most grade levels, though, student scores for reading and math on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test showed little or no improvement from last year, leading Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to describe the results as "pretty much a mixed bag."
"There are substantial gains that I think we should be very happy about," Bennett said. "On the other hand, the FCAT results are flat. I find that personally unacceptable."
The Florida Department of Education released FCAT reading, mathematics and science results for fourth through 10th grades and end-of-course exam results in U.S. History, Biology I, Algebra I and Geometry.
Students in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties lagged behind other Florida students in reading and math at almost every grade level. Almost half of 10th-grade students in both counties were below grade ? - ? level in reading, meaning they will have to retake the FCAT to earn high-school diplomas.
More local students, though, earned a passing score on the Algebra 1 end-of-course test.
Since last year, students entering ninth grade are required to pass the exam to get credit for the class - a move by state lawmakers intended to better prepare students for college and careers. Students who fail can retake the test.
In Hillsborough, 61 percent passed, 4 percentage points higher than last year. The percent passing in Pinellas also rose 4 percentage points, up to 56 percent.
That trend was reflected across Florida, with 64 percent of students passing ? , ? - a jump of 6 percentage points from last year. "These are high stakes tests - there's no getting around that," said Pam Moore, the Pinellas County ?School District's associate superintendent of teaching and learning.
The algebra test is typically taken during ninth grade but is also taken? by mathematically inclined students ?in middle school, who typically outperform the older students.
This year, 97 percent of Hillsborough seventh-graders who took the test passed the test, compared to just 32 percent of ninth-graders. This year, 96 percent of Pinellas seventh-graders who took the test passed, compared to just 34 percent of ninth-graders.
"They're obviously going to need some additional support," Moore said. "We are examining those curricula designs to make sure we're including that for next year."
Some of those students will prepare for retaking the exam at Summer Bridge, a new summer program the Pinellas school district is offering for students of all ages to ? try and ? boost student achievement. Almost 8,000 students are registered for the program, Moore said.
Florida students will take the FCAT one more year as the state transitions toward tougher new education standards known as Common Core State Standards, which will change teaching in the classroom and allow parents and politicians to measure how well Florida students stack up against those in other states.
The transition may have been a factor in the plateau of FCAT scores statewide, said Bennett, the education commissioner.
The state's schedule requires kindergarten and first-grade teachers to follow the new standards, which require students to read more complex texts and encourages problem-solving over simple learning of facts.
Some districts have accelerated their implementation, Bennett said. That includes Pinellas, which is also teaching Common Core at second grade and for language arts in sixth and ninth grade."I think also what we're seeing is that transition to Common Core - teacher practices are changing," he said.
School grades for elementary and middle schools based on the FCAT results will be released later this summer.
Tribune reporters Kate Bradshaw and Kevin Wiatrowski and correspondent Sara Drumm contributed to this report.
Education chief: flat test results 'personally unacceptable'