TAMPA — Despite the state's efforts to make teacher evaluations more accurate, an unusually high number of Florida educators continue to receive good performance ratings.
Nearly 98 percent of teachers received the top marks of "highly effective" and "effective" in 2014, just as in 2012 and 2013, according to figures released Wednesday by the Florida Department of Education.
The percentage of teachers earning the highest rating actually rose as some districts have been reluctant to hurt teachers' contracts and pay at a time of changing tests and standards.
In Pasco County, for instance, the percentage of teachers deemed highly effective jumped to 81.5 percent from just 4.7 percent last year, after teachers won contract concessions making it easier to get that mark.
Florida lawmakers changed teachers' evaluations in 2011, trying to remove some of the subjectivity of past years when nearly every teacher statewide was rated well even as thousands of students struggled.
However, their mandate — that student test results count for 50 percent of a complicated calculation that assigns teachers a numeric score — has confused administrators and teachers, and raised questions about the validity of the evaluations. They contend the model is unfair and is not necessarily a true measure of quality in the classroom.
"The system, from where I sit, is flawed," Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said.
Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego called the state's controversial "value-added" measure — a calculation that uses test results to gauge a teacher's impact — "just a score." He said it doesn't offer much insight into how to help teachers improve and principals' observations are better gauges of performance.
Adding to the confusion is the seeming inconsistency between school grades and teacher evaluations. Just like last year, both low- and high-performing schools boasted long rosters of top-ranked teachers.
Consider two very different Pinellas schools.
Fairmount Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg, one of the lowest performing schools in Florida, had 98.5 percent of teachers rated highly effective or effective. Clearwater Fundamental Middle School, one of the county's highest performing schools, had 100 percent of teachers earn the top two marks.
The two aspects of the state's accountability system aren't directly aligned. School grading primarily measures how well students performed in one testing year, with some learning growth accounted for, while teacher evaluations look at learning gains over time.
But there are some reasons why a low-performing school would be expected to have lower-ranked teachers. Struggling schools often have higher turnover and higher numbers of inexperienced teachers.
Grego suggested some of the confusion stems from too much state intervention.
"Local districts need to be the ones in the business of teacher evaluations," Grego said. Yet the state is set to further dictate evaluation rules next year.
Browning saw state involvement as a good thing. He suggested that local flexibility creates sliding criteria that make it impossible to really know if teachers are good or bad compared to their peers statewide.
He argued that a state guideline would change the percentages of teachers in each category to be more realistic.
"How do you have 99 percent of our teachers rated effective or highly effective?" Browning asked. "It just can't be."
Hernando County superintendent Lori Romano agreed the evaluation system has its problems. But she viewed it as a work in progress, noting that just a couple of years ago teachers could be rated on students they never taught, and now they aren't.
"It definitely is not an exact or ideal system," Romano said. "But think about where we came from."
She added that as she visits schools, she often sees "great instruction." If the changes to the evaluation system helped those teachers, Romano said, "it's a good thing."
Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando schools had no teachers rated unsatisfactory, while Hillsborough schools had the state's highest number of teachers in that small category — 228 of 460.
Hillsborough schools also had a more even spread of teachers throughout the levels than most other districts.
"Our system has been developing over the last four years," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "It's been a focal point in the work that we've done to improve outcomes for our students."
Elia expected to use individual teacher data to examine how each teacher did from year to year.
State officials said they didn't want to read too much into the data released Wednesday because it's preliminary. They said more analysis of how student performance impacted evaluations will be available in January.