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High school grades have less bad news, less good news for Tampa Bay districts

Grades largely improved for high schools around Tampa Bay and throughout Florida in 2011, but with more mixed results in Pinellas, according to state data released Wednesday.

Statewide, the percentage of A or B high schools rose from 71 percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of D schools dropped from 57 to 25; the number of F high schools from 11 to six.

"It's great to see more of Florida's high schools trending upward," Gov. Rick Scott said in a written statement.

Many educators were quick to concede, though, that maintaining those trend lines will be a challenge next year. The reason: A harder Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. A harder graduation rate formula. A harder grading formula.

"We're all going to have to make sure people understand this change is coming, and it is going to be a phenomenal change for every school, every school district and every child," said Pasco Superintendent Heather Fiorentino.

"It'll be tough," said Kevin Hendrick, director of high schools in Pinellas. "But at the end of the day, we feel confident in our principals and teachers that we will continue to meet those (higher standards) ... We're confident our kids will rise."

In Pinellas, the latest results show no D or F high school for the first time in nearly a decade.

Two Pinellas schools that earned a D in 2010, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins, moved up to a C. A third, Largo High, climbed to a B. Gibbs High, which earned an F two years ago, moved from C to B.

But on the downside, the number of A high schools in Pinellas dropped from seven to two — East Lake and Palm Harbor University. Some of them had enough points under the state's grading system to earn A's but were penalized a letter grade because they did not see enough improvement with their lowest-performing students.

Hillsborough boasted more schools this year earning A's and B's than ever before — 93 percent, up from 79 percent last year.

Five high schools, Brandon, Chamberlain, Spoto, Steinbrenner and Plant City, earned A's for the first time. The most dramatic jump was at Spoto, which earned a D last year. Brandon and Chamberlain's success was more gradual, with Brandon rising from C to B to A in three years, and Chamberlain from D to C to A in the same time period.

In Pasco, eight of 13 high schools saw improvement in their state grades this year. Anclote High led the way, jumping from F to A in its second year in the grading system. This occurred not only because of improvements in FCAT results, but because the school this year had more data, such as a graduation rate, to count toward its overall performance.

Five other Pasco high schools — Mitchell, Pasco, River Ridge, Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch — also earned A's. Hudson High logged a strong outcome as well, jumping from a D to a B.

Two Pasco schools, Land O'Lakes and Zephyrhills, saw their grades decline. And Fivay High, in its first year in the system, received a D, in part because it had no graduation rate or other key factors to count, much like Anclote High the year before.

In Hernando, all five high schools earned a B this year, including Weeki Wachee High, its first grade since opening in 2010. Three schools — Springstead, Nature Coast Technical, and Central High — maintained their B grades, and Hernando High improved from a C.

The news is especially encouraging for Hernando and Central. Their poor performance in recent years prompted the state to send officials to help school administrators map out improvement plans and put them to work, and both schools faced tougher sanctions if that improvement didn't happen. The two schools also split about $1.4 million in state grant dollars last year. Most of the money has been used to add staff to focus more attention on struggling students.

The grades show the action plans are working, said Central principal Joe Clifford.

"The amount of pressure we've been putting on teacher has been consumptive, and they clearly have risen to the occasion, and I couldn't be prouder of my staff and my students," Clifford said.

The state moved to a new high school grading formula during the 2009-10 school year. It includes other factors besides the FCAT, such as graduation rates and performance on more rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement tests.

The additional information is why the high school grades no longer come out in the summer, when the grades for elementary and middle schools do.

State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson attributed much of the improvement in grades to higher participation rates and successful performance in accelerated courses, which account for nearly one-fifth of the overall grade.

Participation in industry certification programs, for instance, rose 70 percent, while successful completion of the certification exams went up 103 percent.

High schools also saw about 23,000 more students taking dual enrollment courses, with 21,260 additional successful course completions.

This year's results could be a high-water mark, however, because many components of the grading system are set to change for the current school year.

Performance in accelerated courses will be counted more heavily, while participation will count less. Higher FCAT passing scores, adopted last month, will take effect. The state will also move to a federally approved method for calculating graduation rates that will eliminate what critics consider loopholes that have padded rates for years.

"We probably will see a decrease in the graduation rates," Robinson said.

Other rule changes for school grading will be considered by the state Board of Education this month.

The grade distribution might decrease, deputy commissioner Kris Ellington said. "But this reflects what is valued and what is important for moving the whole system forward."

Largo High principal Marjorie Sundstrom said she has no qualms with what some consider to be moving targets.

"That's just the way it should be. You shouldn't get complacent," she said. "We're working with kids' lives here."

The high schools have 30 days to appeal their grades. Based on those results, the state will calculate "school recognition funds" for all schools with a goal of distributing that money -- about $70 per student -- by the week of Feb. 20.

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614.

High school grades have less bad news, less good news for Tampa Bay districts 01/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 2:02pm]

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