BROOKSVILLE — Across Florida, high school grades went up for the 2012-13 school year, with a record number of schools earning the state's highest mark.
Across Hernando County, just the opposite occurred.
All five Hernando high schools dropped a letter grade — and one of those would have dropped two if not for the state's "safety net" rule, which prevents a school from falling more than one letter grade.
Springstead High School and Nature Coast Technical High dropped from A's to B's. Weeki Wachee High would have dropped to a C, but was saved by the "safety net" rule and fell to a B in its first year with a graduating class. Hernando High and Central High both dropped from B's to C's.
But the picture is not quite so simple.
Springstead and Nature Coast actually earned enough points for A grades.
The problem: Both schools failed to make adequate progress in graduating at-risk students, resulting in their demotions by one mark.
What does that actually mean?
If Springstead would have graduated four more at-risk students, it would have earned an A grade, said Linda Peirce, the district's manager of assessment and accountability. Nature Coast would have hit the A mark had 11 more at-risk students graduated.
"I wouldn't want the public to think that the schools are not performing well," Peirce said. "I wouldn't say that they are not performing like an A school."
Springstead principal Susan Duval was upset by the drop and strongly criticized the state's rule.
"I think it's outrageous," Duval said, noting that the school has been penalized under this rule before. "It makes us appear less than what we are. And we are an A."
Duval thinks the state's penalty is much more harsh than appropriate. Instead of dropping a school an entire grade, the state should take away points, which wouldn't necessarily result in a letter-grade drop, she said.
"We should be accountable," she said. "But the consequences need to be in proportion to the offense."
Although school officials are upset, they're focused on improving. They will examine the data for at-risk students, determine what prevented them from graduating and plan for what they can do to improve.
Central principal John Stratton said the drop to a C grade came as no surprise because of the low end-of-course and FCAT scores for students it received over the summer.
Stratton said the school grade doesn't alter Central's plan to hone in on its instructional practices.
"Our plans have been in place since Day 1," he said. "We haven't waited until now to react."
Stratton, in his first year at the school, said the staff is well trained and experienced in what it takes to bring up a school's grade.
"It's just a matter of refocusing," he said.
Peirce said Central and Hernando would have earned D grades if their FCAT and end-of-course exam scores had been solely used in the evaluation. Other components — such as graduation rate and college readiness — helped boost their scores.
Hernando County's grades come amid higher overall scores across the state.
More high schools than ever — 240, or 48 percent — earned A grades. More than half the high schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties received A's. So many schools received A's and B's that the state will bump its scoring levels next year.
That means Hernando will face even tougher standards.
On the new scale, Springstead would have been the only Hernando school with enough points this year for an A. Nature Coast would have been a B. The remaining three high schools would have been C's.
Superintendent Lori Romano says the bar next year will be higher, but the district will rise to the challenge.
"I'm excited for moving forward with a strong instructional program," Romano said. "This is about working smarter. I know that we have the ability to do it."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes on Twitter.