three students at a table using calculators
State test results show Polk County students are struggling with math and made less progress than their peers elsewhere in Florida last year. | Karolina Grabowska, Pexels

Linda Walberg’s 15-year-old daughter Gemma has struggled with math since she started school, lagging behind her peers at Lakeland Montessori School.

“She got really stressed out about test-taking in general, like standardized tests, and at that point, she just started falling behind,” said Walberg, adding that Gemma also struggled with the reading test. “They got her analyzed and they just realized that she had high anxiety and depression over test-taking.”

Despite several years of tutoring at Mathnasium in the Lake Miriam Plaza, Gemma never scored higher than a 2 out of 5 on the state tests in elementary and middle school.

Last year, Gemma started at Harrison School for the Arts, took Algebra I and did well in the class — ending the year with an 85% average. Her mom said tutoring from retired Polk County Public Schools math teacher Marilyn Zegel Yant helped. But frustratingly, Gemma still received a 2 on the end-of-course exam and will have to take it again — and earn at least a 3 — in order to graduate.

Gemma is not alone in her struggles with math.

Recently released results of the new Florida Assessment of Student Thinking show that — over three test administrations during the last school year — Polk County students did make progress in math. But more than half of Polk County students in grades 5 through 8 were still below grade level at the end of the year, based on the preliminary grouping of raw scores into tiers from 1 to 5.

Source: Florida Department of Education

PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid said the percentages of those performing at or above grade level could change in January after the state reviews the cutoff scores for each level. The FAST replaced the Florida Standards Assessment, which students took from 2015 through last year. Because of the change in testing, it’s not possible to accurately compare results with the past year.

A disclaimer on the Florida Department of Education website explains that — while the number of questions students answered correctly won’t change — the scale that determines the cutoff scores for Levels 1-5 may change.

But even if the state redefines what constitutes a passing score, Polk County students still scored lower and made less progress across-the-board than students elsewhere in Florida.

Local middle schoolers did particularly poorly, with only 38% of Polk County sixth graders earning 3 or higher on the final assessment, compared with 54% statewide; and only 35% of Polk County seventh graders passing, compared with 48% statewide.

Elementary school students

Of all Polk County students, those in third and fourth grade did the best on last year’s math test, with 51% and 56%, respectively, performing at or above grade level by the end of the year. 

A LkldNow analysis found that students enrolled in charter schools and magnet programs outperformed other students.

All 16 of Lakeland Montessori School’s third graders scored a 3 or higher on the state test. Magnolia Montessori, McKeel Academy Central and Lincoln Avenue Academy also did well with 87% or more of their students passing.

At the other end of the scale, third graders enrolled in full-time eSchool or virtual instruction scored the lowest. Among traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Philip O’Brien Elementary had the most struggling students with 78% of its third graders failing the test and 53% scoring a 1 out of 5.

At a School Board work session Tuesday, Heid emphasized the importance of regular attendance, particularly for elementary school students, and said the district is looking at hiring three more truancy officers.

“Chronic absenteeism continues to be the biggest plague on our scores more than anything else,” Heid said. “If you removed the scores of students with 20 or more absences, scores would go up by a minimum of 10 percentage points and in some cases 16 points.”

In the third grade alone, there were 13,000 students with 20 or more absences last year.

“Over 5,000 students should have been referred to the courts for excessive absences. … It’s not Burger King — you can’t just have it your way and show up whenever you want,” Heid said, referring to the fast food chain’s old slogan.

Middle school students

Local students’ test scores dropped off significantly in middle school with 62% of sixth graders, 65% of seventh graders and 58% of eighth graders failing the test, based on the preliminary results.

A LkldNow analysis found that — as at the elementary level — sixth graders at Montessori, charter and magnet schools fared best, with a majority of those students passing the exam. At Lakeland Montessori Middle, 92% of the sixth graders earned a 3 or higher. McKeel Academy Central was on its heels with a 91% passing rate.

However, seven out of Lakeland’s 13 middle schools saw a majority of its sixth graders fail the test. Southwest Middle School had the lowest passing rate at 21%, followed by Lake Gibson Middle School with only 23% passing. Neither school had a single student receive a score a 5. Both Southwest Middle and Sleepy Hill Middle had more than half of their students score 1 on the test.

Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. said helping this age group is a priority for his department.

“We must focus on increasing math scores for middle school students, which will set them up for success in high school and beyond,” Diaz said in March, announcing a new professional development program for more than 700 middle school math teachers.

Algebra 1 and Geometry results

Although they are considered high school courses, about 41% of students statewide take Algebra 1 while they are still in middle school and about 9.5% take Geometry during their middle school years.

Those students are typically high achievers doing accelerated coursework. As a result, an overwhelming majority of middle school students who take the end-of-course assessments do well.

In Polk County, 81% of middle schoolers who took the Algebra 1 exam passed it and 91% passed the Geometry exam.

Students who struggle with math generally don’t reach Algebra 1 and Geometry until high school. Only 25% of Polk high school students who took the Algebra 1 exam for the first time last year and 32% of students who took the Geometry exam passed.

Polk County high schoolers’ test results were markedly lower than the statewide average.

Local high schools

Algebra 1 is a graduation requirement for Florida high school students. To earn a standard diploma, students must get at least a 3 on the end-of-course exam or satisfy the requirement by earning a minimum score on an alternative test like the ACT or SAT.

Last spring, freshmen taking the Algebra 1 exam were joined by older students retaking it, typically after a year of “Liberal Arts Math” or a similar skills-reinforcement course.

McKeel Academy of Technology (a charter school with students in grades 7-12) had the highest passing rate at 74%. Polk full-time eSchool had a 53% pass rate.

Among traditional brick-and-mortar high schools, Lakeland Senior High performed best with 49% of all students (including retakers) passing the Algebra 1 exam, followed closely by George W. Jenkins with a 48% pass rate. Kathleen and Lake Gibson had 36% and 35% of students pass, respectively. Tenoroc High students struggled with only 25% getting a score of 3 or higher.

Maynard A. Traviss Technical Academy had the lowest passing rate among local high schools, but it also has a very small student body. Only three of the 13 students who took the test last year passed. Students attending Traviss Tech are typically those who are earning certification in a blue-collar trade.

Florida high school students have to take Geometry to graduate, but they don’t have to retake the end-of-course exam if they get less than a 3, as long as they pass the course.

McKeel Academy of Technology students posted the highest scores on the Geometry exam, with 74% passing.

George W. Jenkins was slightly ahead of Lakeland Senior High with 40% and 38% pass rates, respectively. About a quarter of Lake Gibson and Kathleen students passed the Geometry exam. Tenoroc and Traviss students had the hardest time with the test, with only 22% and 17% passing respectively.

Identifying students with ‘substantial math deficiency’

Young students who struggle with math may get more individual help starting this year.

The Florida Legislature passed a bill in May that requires school districts to identify and “provide immediate, tailored instruction to students in grades K-4 who exhibit a substantial deficiency in math or characteristics of dyscalculia.”

According to The Cleveland Clinic, “dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand number-based information and math. The symptoms usually appear in childhood when children are learning basic math concepts.

Heid said it’s important to concentrate on early learners because if they are struggling, by the time they get to third grade it’s too late.

The State Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday to formalize criteria for determining “substantial math deficiency.” Those include:

  • scoring below the 10th percentile on screening or diagnostic assessments, progress monitoring or other classroom data.
  • teacher observation that a student is struggling with basic grade-level skills.

Extra support for math deficiency

Once a student is identified as being deficient in math, the school must make a plan to provide “systematic and explicit mathematics instruction” and monitor the child’s progress.

One option the law offers is to give the student an Individual Education Plan, which is part of a federal program with many formal requirements, including instruction by a special education teacher.

Frederick Heid
PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid

However, Heid said the law does not mandate IEPs and “a single low test score alone would not meet the criteria for such services.” Students generally need a formal diagnosis to qualify for an IEP.

School Board member Lisa Miller, who has spent nearly two decades advocating for special education students, added “it would not be beneficial (and I’m not sure legal) to classify students who need supports in math with a cognitive disability or SLD (specific learning disability) without further testing and interventions.”

Additionally, the district doesn’t have enough staff to serve a huge influx of new students with IEPs. Special education teachers are in high demand and short supply across the country.

On Tuesday, the district’s website showed openings for 18 ESE facilitators, 16 ESE paraeducators, five speech pathologists, and six pre-kindergarten ESE teachers. The pay grade for teachers adheres to the district’s salary schedule for teachers, with pay starting at $47,500.

Other options the law offers to help students with math deficiencies are implementing school-wide or individualized progress monitoring plans. These would involve:

  • Daily targeted small group intervention.
  • Supplemental evidence-based interventions delivered by a highly qualified math teacher or trained tutor.
  • Regular monitoring of student progress.

“I would advocate for the progress monitoring plans,” Miller said in an email to LkldNow. “We have (multi-tiered systems of supports) and other interventions that would alert to more significant needs.”

Heid was clear on one point: “Students who are identified properly deserve to receive the supports and services that will allow them to be successful.”

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips:


Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. Her career has included journalism, education, digital marketing and public relations. She worked for the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel and spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining LkldNow.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Gemma’s story makes me wonder how many others struggle with test taking when they show actual success in achieving in their class.

Leave a comment

Your Thoughts On This? (Comments are moderated; first and last name are required.)