School Test Scores Show Polk Students Are Struggling

The Florida Department of Education issued state, district, and school test scores this week, and the results showed Polk is struggling: Reading and math scores for the county’s schools at every grade level show Polk students score below — sometimes well below — the state average.

However, a handful of Lakeland schools earned some of the highest scores in the countywide district.

Polk students saw a five percentage point drop this year compared to 2017 for students who read at or above grade level. In 2017, 53% of students scored a three or higher, while this year that number dropped to 48%. A score of three is considered performing “at grade level” or where some education experts say they’re supposed to be.

In fact, fewer than 50% of students at every grade level in Polk scored a three or above in reading, with 7th graders struggling the most — only 38% scored a three, four or five on the annual exam.

Polk fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are also struggling in math: None of those grade levels had half the students or higher scoring a three or above.  Only 41% of middle school students scored a three or above –- the same score as last year.

That means 59% of Polk middle-schoolers failed both the math and reading tests.

Frederick Heid

“Despite the many challenges over the past two years, our schools were able to achieve gains and maintain their progress in some subjects,” said Superintendent Frederick Heid. “There is still much work to do, but we are proud of our students, teachers and staff for overcoming so many obstacles and giving their full effort for these assessments.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis did away with FSA testing this year and opted instead for progress monitoring, which was already being done. That means students take tests throughout the year, instead of just one high-stakes test in each subject area.

“This year, Florida is transitioning to a progress monitoring system that will replace high-stakes testing,” Heid said. “However, this final round of assessment data remains valuable. We will target areas that need improvement and provide all necessary support to help our students succeed.”

Reading: Statewide scores vs. Polk scores

Math: Statewide scores vs. Polk scores

  • View scores for individual Lakeland schools in reading here or math here — or at the end of this article.
  • Check out scores for any school or district in Florida here.
  • Florida Standards Assessment home page

The scores come after two years of a pandemic that saw students remaining at home and learning virtually for the last part of the 2019-2020 school year.  FSA testing was cancelled and the state did not issue school grades that year. Seniors who did not pass the Florida Standards Assessment were still allowed to graduate.

In the 2020-2021 school year, students could attend school in person, online, or a hybrid.  Tens of thousands of students were forced to quarantine if they sat near someone who contracted COVID and masks were mandatory for in-person learning.

This school year saw a return to in-person learning and no mask requirements.

Despite the challenges, many scores remained about the same.

Lakeland

While the state issued test scores for each grade level at each school, LkldNow reviewed test scores for third, eighth and 10th grades – one grade per elementary, middle and high school — for the sake of simplicity.

Lincoln Avenue Academy, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme World School, scored the highest among Lakeland’s third graders in reading, with 89% scoring at or above grade level in reading and 84% scoring a three or more in math.

Winston Academy of Engineering also saw 84% of its third graders score a three or higher in math and 67% in reading.

Several Montessori schools saw threes and above in math and reading for third graders:

  • Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse – 75%
  • Magnolia Montessori Academy — 68%

And the McKeel Academy Schools also saw a majority of students in math at or above grade level:

  • McKeel Central Academy — 61% of third graders                                                                      
  • South McKeel Academy — 86% of third graders                                                                                      
  • McKeel Academy of Technology — 92% of eighth graders 

High Schools – Reading Test Results

  • George W. Jenkins Senior High   —  Out of 576 10th graders, 47% passed
  • Kathleen Senior High – Out of 527 10th graders, 29% passed
  • Lake Gibson Senior High – Out of 510 10th graders, 37% passed
  • Lakeland Senior High – Out of 487 10th graders, 51% passed
  • McKeel Academy of Technology – Out of 297 10th graders, 74% passed
  • Polk Pre-Collegiate Academy —  Out of 36 10th graders, 64% passed
  • Tenoroc High – Out of 268 10th graders, 25% passed

McKeel Academy of Technology’s 10th grade reading scores were the highest out of all of Lakeland’s high schools.  Nearly three-fourths of its sophomores read at or above grade level, while 64% of what the state calls Polk Pre-Collegiate Academy perform as well. A hair more than half of Lakeland Senior High and Harrison School For The Arts 10th graders scored a three or above.

At the bottom of the barrel again this year is Tenoroc High School; only one-fourth of the 268 10th graders read at or above grade level, while only 10 percent of the school’s 226 students who took the algebra test scored a three or above. And only one percent of those students earned the highest score of a five.

Townsend’s critique

Former Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend, a longtime critic of public school test scores, places the blame at the feet of Tenoroc’s principal, Jason Looney. Townsend has been analyzing school test scores for more than 22 years, first as a reporter for The Ledger and then as a School Board member. He has long called for Looney’s ouster over personnel matters and student achievement.

“There’s all these elaborate statistical equations that basically prevent the test from ever changing what the scores are.  If you have a particularly bad situation or a particularly good situation, you will see data reflect that as an outlier.  The only time I find the data helpful in education is outliers. Compared to other schools Tenoroc has been an outlier for a long time – that’s because it has terrible leadership that needs to be replaced.”

Townsend called the Florida test “fundamentally corrupt,” along with the officials who put them in place, adding that they are a money-making scheme for “grifters” who prey on the parents of vulnerable, academically struggling students.

“None of these tests are of any benefit to your kids — this test in particular was a dead test walking,” Townsend said.  “There’s no reason to even get it except for the state to do what it wanted to do.”

And what state officials want to do, he said, is move students —  and the thousands of dollars attached to them – from so-called struggling schools to pop-up charter schools or private schools that can take money from a state program to educate children. Businesses are allowed to contribute what they would have paid in taxes to this scholarship program — sometimes called a voucher program — that can pay for private school educations for children.

“Voucher schools don’t get tested at all and if they were they’d be a billion times worse than regular schools,” Townsend said.  “It’s political so a community can make a statement.  Test scores are weaponized.”

Townsend praised the current superintendent and staff for seeing through all the political rhetoric.

“He seems quite committed to the humanity of kids and the service of kids and not bragging about scores or making excuses for scores,” Townsend said. 

School grades are not expected to be issued by the state until mid-July.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected].