#### legacyofCangelosi

##### Muckdog

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FCAT gain keeps 5-year trend alive in Dade

BY MATTHEW I. PINZUR, PETER BAILEY AND LAURA MORALES

Miami-Dade County students scored slightly higher again this year on the state's benchmark standardized test, continuing a trend that adds up to dramatic improvement over the last five years.

According to test results released Wednesday by the Florida Department of Education, more than half of Miami-Dade's students read at their grade level and 57 percent meet the same standard in math.

Five years ago, fewer than 40 percent met the reading proficiency standard, and 41 percent met the math one.

Such long-term trends are more meaningful than year-to-year comparisons, testing experts say, because they are less affected by hops and dips that randomly occur in large sets of data.

''I just feel so good and excited,'' Tashira Sheftall, 11, a fifth-grader at Bunche Park Elementary in Miami Gardens, said as her classmates screamed, hooted and pogoed about wildly when they heard about their school's success on the test.

''This is the consistent pattern that you want to see,'' Superintendent Rudy Crew said of the five-year positive trend. ``This is sustainable. This is exactly what you want.''

This biggest blips on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results were among seventh-graders, who had eye-popping gains, and sixth-graders, with equally jarring declines.

The explanation dates back to 2003, when the state began requiring students who failed the reading test to repeat third grade. That created a fourth-grade class in 2004 that had left behind its lowest-performing students.

That group is now finishing seventh grade, and reading and math scores -- 59 and 55 percent proficient, respectively -- were six and seven percentage points ahead of last year's seventh-graders.

The class one year behind, which includes some of the poorer readers who had been retained a year, has always been weaker in comparison. This year, its reading and math proficiency rates were 55 and 44 percent, a decline of seven and five points, respectively, from 2006.

Educators expect that ''bubble'' to continue until the class of 2012 graduates.

Outside that bubble, the 2007 scores mirrored previous years'. Few groups' scores were more than one or two percentage points different from the year before.

Elementary-age students' scores were generally high -- about 64 percent performed at grade level or above on the math and reading tests. But older students continued to lag. In high school, only 33 percent of ninth-graders and 27 percent of 10-graders were proficient in reading but much better in math -- 51 percent for freshmen and 57 percent for sophomores.

Broward, too, has improved at almost every level since 2003. It has usually outperformed its more urban neighbor and settled into a pattern of slight annual changes, usually for the better.

There is no easy way to prove whether students are better at learning today than five years ago, or simply better at taking tests such as the FCAT. But in a state that continues to base much of its education infrastructure on those scores -- high-school graduation, teacher bonuses, school grades -- the overall gains are crucial.

Parents look at results when choosing between the district and its charter- and private-school competitors. Voters look at the results when electing School Board members. Lawmakers look at the results when weighing Miami-Dade's pleas for more money.

''Here's the return on your investment for the past few years,'' said Associate Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Even before they begin taking the exam in third grade, Florida students are injected with FCAT expectations.

When the results are good, as they were at Bunche Park, reactions tended toward euphoria. Principal Beryl James burst into tears Wednesday. ''It's been such a challenge,'' she said.

Her school showed gains across the spectrum, exceeding administrators' expectations for reading, math, writing and science.

For the first time, science scores will count toward school grades, which will be released next month. Unlike the math and reading exams, which students take every year from grades three through 10, the science test is given only in grades five, eight and 11.

Science scores increased statewide over 2006 results, though fewer than half the students scored at grade level. In Miami-Dade, 34 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade level or above, up from 29 percent last year. Scores for 11th- and eighth-graders increased from 32 percent last year to 34 and 36 percent, respectively.

''It was a lot of stress placed on everyone, but we asked the students to drive us forward and they did,'' said Miami-Dade district science supervisor Cyd Heyliger-Browne.

The School Improvement Zone, a Crew innovation that provides intensive-care academics for long-struggling campuses, continued to close its gap with the overall student population.

Reading gains at Zone middle schools and math gains for elementary and middle Zone students were particular standouts.

It was impossible to predict Wednesday whether those gains were sufficient to nudge the county's lowest-performing schools above an F.

But Wednesday's news was encouraging. Edison Senior High, which has received five F's in a row, improved in every test subject this year.

Crew has all but staked his superintendency -- and national reputation -- on pulling those schools out of the statistical cellar despite the challenges of immigration, language and poverty. He said Wednesday's results were further proof such success is attainable.

''This isn't something for privileged children,'' he said. ``This is something that can happen any place we choose to make it happen.''

Miami Herald staff writers Tania deLuzuriaga, Nirvi Shah and Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.