children sitting on brown chairs inside the classroom
As students across the county prepare to return to school, test scores show most are reading below grade level and will need extra help to catch up. | Arthur Krijgsman, Pexels

Despite making progress during the school year, more than half of local students failed a statewide reading test last spring.

A LkldNow review of preliminary reading scores recently released by the Florida Department of Education shows that fewer than half of Polk County’s students are reading at or above grade level with one exception — 53% of fourth graders earned a 3, 4 or 5 on Florida’s statewide test.

In the rest of the grades tested — third through 10th — a majority of students failed.

Scores range from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest and 3 considered grade level. Anything below that is failing. In Polk County, 58% of third graders failed the reading test, along with 61% of eighth graders and 60% of 10th graders.

This is the first year the FAST — the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking — has been used. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis scrapped the old Florida Standards Assessment for a progress-monitoring approach, with students being evaluated three times a year. 

With the implementation of the new test, the state is doing away with school and district grades this year.

Students made progress, but not enough

The three tests — administered in September, December and May — showed that students did make progress in 2022-23. Over the course of the year, the share of Polk County students reading at or above grade level increased from 27% on the first test, to 33% on the second and finally 41% on the third.

However, Polk students trailed the rest of the state in every grade level except fourth. The gap was widest for local sixth graders, who made the least progress with only 35% reading at grade level by the end of the year in Polk County compared with 54% across the rest of the state.

Despite the fact that a large percentage of children failed the test, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. praised the new testing approach.

“The significant gains made by our students this school year prove that progress monitoring is a success,” Diaz said in a press release. “Florida’s teachers were provided immediate feedback following each FAST administration and used that feedback to guide future instruction. I look forward to working with educators to build on these results as we establish a true annual comparison beginning next year.”

Lakeland results by school

In Lakeland, out of 36 elementary schools, only 10 traditional or magnet Polk County Public Schools showed 50% or more of third graders reading at or above grade level.

Out of five charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, four scored 74% or above with Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse at 100%.

The majority of Crystal Lake and Philip O’Brien third-graders were reading at a level 1 — the lowest score.

Out of 13 middle schools in Lakeland, six had more than 50% of eighth-grade students at or above grade level — and three of those were charter schools.

However, Southwest, Kathleen and Crystal Lake middle schools all saw more than half of their eighth-grade students reading at level 1.

Out of Lakeland’s eight high schools, only two – McKeel and Polk eSchool – had 50% or more of 10th graders reading at or above grade level.

Fifty-five percent of Tenoroc High’s 10th graders were reading at level 1. The school’s former principal, Jason Looney, was recently transferred to Southwest Middle School.

Polk has historically tested low, and local students’ reading proficiency has been declining over the past several testing cycles.

In 2021, 47% of Polk County third-graders read at or above grade level, down from 52% in 2018-2019, the last school year students took the Florida Standards Assessments. Testing was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Heid ‘shocked and disappointed’

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid has held the job for two years and last December had his contract extended until 2027. He said that while the scores were unacceptable, he added that the state has set an artificial cut-off number for who is at grade level and who isn’t.

“Reading scores are not final as of yet and will not be finalized until January or so,” Heid said. “As I shared at the (board) meeting, the new cut scores and level scores have not been finalized … I feel strongly that those cut scores will change.”

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.

Heid said he refuses to give excuses, even though there are many factors at play, including the impacts of isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, a teacher shortage and a large number of Polk students living in poverty. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, students from low-income homes typically do poorly on tests because of a number of factors:

  • Fewer resources at home to complete homework, study, or engage in activities that help equip them for success during the school day.
  • Lack of access to computers, high-speed internet and other materials that can aid a student outside of school.
  • Parents often working longer hours or multiple jobs, meaning they may not be available to assist their children with their schoolwork.
  • Many high-poverty school districts lack resources.

“These children can also have health issues stemming from a non-nutritional diet, homelessness, lack of food or the inability to receive medical treatment for illnesses,” the NAASP report reads.  It adds that these factors often place more stress on a student, which can negatively impact the student’s ability to succeed in a school.

“I won’t give excuses because we really need to improve,” Heid said. “And so many of us were shocked and disappointed by the scores here.”

Heid said for reasons that aren’t clear to him, the state is making it more difficult for students to reach grade-level proficiency by shifting what constitutes a passing score.

“The state of Florida also took a position this year that with this new test, that they would only allow the same amount of A and B and C and D schools to exist that were previously identified, which again flies in the face of logic,” Heid said. “Why isn’t a goal to get every school to an A? Why do we make it harder?”

“I won’t give excuses because we really need to improve. And so many of us were shocked and disappointed by the scores here.”

frederick heid, Polk county public schools superintendent

Heid is one of only three out of Florida’s 67 superintendents who will meet with FDOE officials and Pearson, the testing company, next week in Orlando to discuss the test scores. He was chosen as the large-county representative and he said he plans to talk about the arbitrary cut-off number.

“This is also the first year of the assessment and, in the absence of learning gains, it provides a very incomplete picture of student performance — especially post pandemic,” Heid said, noting that because this is the first year FAST is being used, there isn’t a similar test from last year to compare the scores to that would show year-to-year learning for each student.

The superintendent said there were some administrators and teachers who announced to students that this year’s test wasn’t important.

“Some schools’ staffs weren’t taking this year’s most recent year’s assessment as critically as they could have because they knew that there’d be no grades again,” Heid said, adding that they have been spoken to.

Strategies to improve learning outcomes

To address Polk’s historically low test scores, Heid has made a number of changes in the last year to 18 months, including administrative staffing, with multiple principals being shifted and assistant principals being promoted. School staffing has also changed to provide better wrap-around services for students, which include counselors, administrators, and social workers.

In addition, the school district has added truancy officers to address students who are chronically late or absent. According to PCPS statistics, more than 51,000 students missed 10 days or more in the 2021-2022 school year — almost half the student population, which was 110,000 that year. These absences do not reflect COVID quarantine numbers.

The district has also implemented new tutoring services for struggling students, conducted an evaluation of all reading and math programs to limit the ones the district uses to those that are research-based materials with a proven effect outcome. He also implemented a corrective reading program in targeted schools.

District staff have reviewed the master schedule to ensure they are using time efficiently in order to maximize learning outcomes.

There have been changes for teachers, too.

Heid said they are also using federal grant dollars to pay for additional after school professional training for staff at targeted schools.

They have provided science resources and assessments for teachers. Heid said those teachers who used at least five of the six units had almost double the proficiency scores than their counterparts.

In addition, the district has identified high-performing staff in specific content areas to assist their peers and created the coaching program in partnership with Grand Canyon University to allow teachers to provide coaching to their peers while remaining in the classroom.

Heid also had teachers implement an educational technique known as learning arcs. In his book “Learning Teaching,” Jim Scrivener described ARC as three key stages of any language class:

  • Authentic use, which uses language in the most natural and realistic way in the classroom.
  • Restricted use, which require students to demonstrate their knowledge of a specific learning objective in a tightly-targeted manner, including worksheets and vocabulary and grammar tests.
  • Clarification and focus, which can happen at any time during a lesson and involves feedback and correction.

Heid has also overseen the development of community liaisons in Lakeland to address the material needs of students.  For instance, Griffin Elementary School parents won’t need to purchase school supplies this year.  They are being provided by the school’s business partner, Pharmaceutical Solutions and Services by McKesson and the Director of Operations, Tim Clark, and his team. Every student will be given a backpack filled with the requested school supplies at orientation on Wednesday, Aug. 9.

Pre-kindergarten emphasis

Polk County Pre-K students. | Courtesy Polk County Early Learning Coalition

Finally, the district is placing an increasing emphasis on early learning to improve kindergarten readiness and ensure improved grade level performance by grade three.

“If we’re actually putting kids in kindergarten who’re not ready for kindergarten — don’t know their letters, don’t know their sounds, don’t know their numbers — you know, and have all these other needs potentially, have other social emotional behavioral disorders … why are we wasting time and not addressing that from the age of three and up?” Heid said. “We have a missed opportunity there.”

One area he is also focusing on is teacher recruitment and retainment — a national epidemic as teachers continue to leave Florida in response to a highly politicized climate that they say makes teaching more difficult.

“I think that’s where we need to continue to focus — how do we make sure our teachers feel like they have all the skills and resources and tools at their fingertips and they have the experience to be feeling like they can be productive in their classrooms,” Heid said. “I don’t think it helps, either, that we’ve seen such a teacher turnover over the years. That’s not just the Polk County issue. We’ve got a lot of young novice teachers, many of whom may not necessarily have an education background.”

As of July 26 — three weeks before the start of school on Aug. 11 — there were 535 instructional positions open on the PCPS website.

Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse had the highest score in the district for third graders, with 100% of the 16 students tested scoring a 3, 4 or 5.

Josie Hill, a co-head of school at LMS and custodian of public records, said “the largest contributing factor is that we follow the Montessori accreditation standards required by the American Montessori Society.”

The basic qualities of a Montessori education include:

  • A carefully prepared environment that is supportive of a variety of academic pursuits.
  • Multi-grade, multi-level classrooms where students can find both learning peers and social peers.
  • Small group instruction within a larger community of learners.
  • Individualized work plans that allow students to work toward individual goals, to maximize their education.
  • An environment where personal choice and self-direction take precedent over prescribed learning goals.
  • And a commitment to empathy and peace in interpersonal as well as interactions in the larger community.

“We have the honor and distinction of being the first public Montessori program in the nation to be Montessori accredited for ages 3 through grade 8,” Hill said. “Additionally, we are the only Montessori-accredited school in Polk County.”

Former school board member questions value of tests

Longtime testing critic and former Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend was incredulous at the numbers.

“This whole system is fraud. The levels are fraud. The testing is fraud. The grades are fraud. This is a dead system,” Townsend said. “No one has any idea what level 1 or level 3 or level 5 means, or how useless mass bubble tests manage to approximate it. The cut scores are manipulated for political and social narrative. It’s all bulls***. “

He continued: “What’s real is that the GOP state government has chased teachers out of the profession at accelerating rates without replacing them and that in Polk County that we have a layer of choice and charter magnet public schools that seek to dump their problems on schools like Crystal Lake and Phillip O’Brien.”

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, left, and Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend talk after a PEACE rally at Resurrection Catholic Church. | Barry Friedman, LkldNow

Despite the stumbling blocks, Heid said “there’s a lot of rainbows in” the numbers, too.

 “I believe last year’s 4th graders are a better example of the progress being made,” he said. “These were also our strongest group in 2021-22. Their performance carried over, showing that many of the changes implemented in 2021-22 are resulting in positive outcomes.”

Heid said he will be meeting with the Florida Department of Education officials, along with representatives from Pearson, on Aug. 3 and 4, when he and other superintendents will make recommendations. Then he said it has to go before the State Board and the Department of Education to finalize it.

“And so then you’ll probably see (score increases in) December, January,” Heid said.

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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.

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