JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Many Florida students continue to struggle on high-stakes tests in reading and math, although new results released Friday showed signs of improvement for those students taking two key tests needed to graduate.

The Florida Department of Education reported that nearly half of the high school students who took the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test did not get a passing grade. More than 386,000 students took the test.

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This year 54 percent of 10th graders passed the reading test -- a 4 percent improvement over last year. Ninth graders also boosted their score to 53 percent -- a 1 percent change.
    
The 10th grade FCAT reading test is crucial because students must pass it in order to graduate.

Duval County schools show increased reading proficiency scores in grades 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10, and math gains in among sixth and eighth graders.

“I am encouraged by these results as they demonstrate our continuing momentum toward improvement, especially in our priority schools [lower performing] which made dramatic gains in all areas,” said Superintendent of Schools Nikolai P. Vitti.
    
The slight improvement in statewide reading scores for high school students was offset by the news that the scores of fourth and fifth graders taking the reading test had slipped slightly from the previous year. Sixty percent of students in those grades passed the FCAT reading test.
    
The percentage of students in grades 5 through 8 who passed the FCAT math test also declined from last year, including a substantial drop among eighth graders.
    
State officials, however, pointed out that scores have improved from last year on end-of-course exams required in classes such as algebra and biology. The algebra 1 end of course assessment is also a graduation requirement.
    
Some 64 percent of those taking the algebra test for the first time passed it compared to 58 percent last year. The jump for biology was even larger as 67 percent of students passed the test -- an eight point percentage gain from 2012.
    
"I personally see this as a mixed bag of results," said Education Commissioner Tony Bennett. "... There are substantial gains with (end of course assessments) that we should be happy about. On the other hand the FCAT results are flat and I personally find that unacceptable."
    
The results also could be a troubling sign for what lies ahead as the state shifts all grades to what are known as common core standards by the 2014-15 school year.
    
Bennett conceded that scores could dip and school grades could suffer initially, but he promised a "full frontal assault" in the next school year to get students and teachers prepared for the looming changes.
    
His comments come just a few weeks after some State Board of Education members fretted about whether the state was doing enough to counter a growing backlash to the new standards.
    
FCAT scores have been the main focus for more than a decade in the state's schools after former Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through his A+ education reform plan in 1999.
    
FCAT scores are the primary factor in determining A-to-F grades for schools. Those that get high grades can earn monetary rewards while schools deemed failing can face sanctions that include staff, faculty and student transfers.

But the state is now beginning to transition away from this system as it moves to implement common core standards. The separate FCAT writing and reading tests will eventually be replaced by an English language arts test tied to the new standards.