TAMPA — Hillsborough County school officials are seeing the flip side of living by the numbers. They can make you look spectacular. Or they can mask a world of complications.
In recent months the district has sent parents mass emails and created colorful website displays about its 84.3 percent graduation rate, the 93 percent of high schools that got A's and B's from the state, and top marks on a highly regarded national test.
A Tampa Bay Times analysis of data from 10 years of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — the state's signature measure of student achievement — reveals a more complex picture.
A comparison of how the 12 largest school districts performed from 2001 through 2010 showed that all of them made progress in reading and math. But over the same decade, Hillsborough lost ground to other districts.
• In 2001 Hillsborough was No. 5 in performance based on the percentage of students proficient, or at grade level, in reading. In 2010, it slipped to No. 9 among the state's 12 biggest districts. In math, Hillsborough was third in 2001 and fifth in 2010.
• African-American students in Hillsborough fell five positions in reading and seven in math.
• Low-income students, generally defined as those in the subsidized lunch program, dropped three positions in reading and five in math.
The Times presented the data to Hillsborough school officials for review. While they did not challenge the accuracy, they said the analysis is too broad and doesn't present a complete picture of the district's performance.
"I'm not happy with every one of these scores. You wouldn't expect that I would be, right?" said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
A more useful report, she said, would have looked at individual grades, schools, or progress in helping the lowest-performing students. "You have to be able to see the differences," she said.
What's more, she said, Hillsborough is a high-performing district. "It's hard maintaining at the top."
She was more blunt in her assessment of Gov. Rick Scott's decision last week to rank Florida's 67 school districts, calling it "a simplistic measure that represents a step backward" for the state.
Hillsborough ranked 38.
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To be clear, no one's saying Hillsborough students are not showing gains; students are improving throughout the state.
Also to be clear, education researchers urge caution in leaping to strong conclusions. The data are both limited and complicated. And rankings can sometimes suggest bigger gulfs than are truly there.
But even with those caveats, the analysis "absolutely raises questions," said Matthew Chingos, an education researcher at the Brookings Institution who reviewed the data.
Viewed one way, the data suggest the 12 large districts, after starting from different levels of proficiency, are catching up with one another.
The most dramatic example was seen in Miami-Dade, which climbed from a 34 percent reading proficiency rate — last place — to 58 percent, just under Hillsborough's 60. In math, Dade climbed from a modest 38 percent to 65 percent, two points below Hillsborough. This even though Miami-Dade is by far the state's most populous district, with 347,000 students in 2010.
Hillsborough officials balk at being compared to other districts, pointing to differences in demographics and poverty.
Hillsborough, for example, was 54 percent black or Hispanic, with 56 percent of children qualifying for a subsidized school lunch in 2010. Brevard was 27 percent black or Hispanic and only 42 percent low income.
"Is it appropriate to compare ourselves to Brevard and Seminole?" asked Samuel Whitten, Hillsborough's testing director. "Are they the same as us? Are we going to be able to move kids as easily as other districts with the issues that we have?"
Yet one district with similar demographics showed students improving at a greater rate than in Hillsborough.
In 2010, Orange County had 176,000 students and was 27 percent black, 33 percent Hispanic and 57 percent low income. Orange was in the bottom tier among the 12 districts in 2001 but made gains strong enough to boost its performance rank. In reading, it moved from No. 11 to No. 8 in performance while Hillsborough, despite its gains, fell from No. 5 to No. 9.
The two districts are now nearly equal in reading and math.
"If you have two places that are very similar demographically … but the results are different, it begs the question: What is one district doing differently?" Chingos said.
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Hillsborough school officials say the district's size alone — one of the largest in 2001 that grew by 14 percent over the decade — sets it apart.
"We had 24,000 new kids over 10 years, and Brevard had 113. Pinellas has declined in population," Whitten said. "Give me a stable population."
Much of that influx has been Hispanic students, whose reading proficiency rate in 2010 was in 11th place among the large districts, at 53 percent.
School officials pointed to the challenge of meeting the needs of a growing population of kids who are just learning English — a situation more pronounced in Hillsborough than elsewhere in the state.
In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, 23 and 19 percent of Hispanic students, respectively, were classified as English language learners. In Hillsborough, it was 34 percent.
Talk to Deborah Gregory, a first-grade teacher at Trapnell Elementary School, which sits among the strawberry farms of Plant City. About one-third of Gregory's students are migrant children whose families travel for agricultural work.
"It's not like working in one of the affluent schools," Gregory said. "Even something as simple as a birthday invitation, we have to take the time to explain what it is."
While the federal government provides funding for additional instructors, their duties extend far beyond the classroom.
"It's like a social worker, but even more," said migrant teacher Daisy Ramirez. "You have to walk outside on a cold morning and see, do they have warm clothes? You have to know, are they clean? If not, why not? Do they have running water at home?"
Often families arrive after the school year has begun and long after slots are filled in preschool programs for the younger children, said program assistant Irene Lara. "And yet these children are expected to do just as well as any other child."
Orange County faced challenges similar to Hillsborough, welcoming 18,500 new students between 2001 and 2010, and had 38 percent of its Hispanic students classified as English language learners. Yet, in reading Orange went from 30 percent of its Hispanic students scoring proficient in 2001 to 55 percent in 2010.
Hillsborough went from 37 percent to 53 percent.
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Any analysis of how the district is faring, Hillsborough school officials said, should be based on multiple measures. And it should include the progress made in moving students out of the lowest tier on the FCAT, which is scored on a 1 to 5 scale.
"The Level 1 issue, particularly when you're talking of minority students, is a very critical issue," Elia said.The district provided data to show that over the decade, Hillsborough's proportion of Level 1 scores has decreased steadily while there has been an increase in Level 3's, the score generally considered passing.
The district has narrowed the achievement gap between minority and white students in Level 3, and dramatically so in Level 1.
Hillsborough officials did not, however, compare the district with others in the state.
The Times did. For grades 3-10, the Times looked at the decrease in the percentage of students testing at Level 1 over the decade for the top 12 districts.
For Hillsborough, those numbers dropped by 10 points in reading, compared to 14 points for the state, and 9 points for math, compared to 15 for the state. Ranked by how well they did in reducing their percentages of Level 1 scores, Hillsborough was 11th in reading and last place in math.
Again, Elia stressed that the district is making gains.
"The trend in Hillsborough is that each year we've gotten better in the Level 3 and improved Level 1," she said.
It isn't easy.
At Just Elementary School, across the street from a large public housing complex, 55 percent of last year's third-graders tested at Level 1 on the reading test.
"Our kids come to school with so many strikes against them," said principal Carolyn Hill, who offers numerous after-school and Saturday enrichment programs. "They are usually not prepared for the rigor of instruction that we give them."
All levels need attention, she said. And she worries about the new FCAT scoring system, which will be more stringent all around.
"Every child deserves to know that after a year's worth of instruction that he's learned something," she said. "That's critically important to them, that they feel they are smarter and better than they were.
"But we're chasing a moving target. We're doing everything humanly possible."
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Within the district and outside, Elia is often commended for her use of data to pinpoint areas where students, schools and teachers need to improve.
At times, she also has been criticized for rushing to showcase flattering data.
"As a board member, I want to hear both good news and bad news," said Stacy White, often a voice of dissent on the Hillsborough School Board. "This is a huge district and a good school district, but we can always do better."
Hillsborough officials recently highlighted their top scores in a study comparing how 21 urban school districts did on tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card.
"Parents, we got some great news today," said an email that directed readers to displays on the district website and YouTube channel. "This Hillsborough County Public School results are tremendous!"
The report itself notes that some districts are more urban than others. In a pool that includes Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia, Hillsborough is, by some measures, on the fringe. All schoolchildren in Cleveland, which is also included, qualify for subsidized lunches.
But look closely, Elia says. When scores were broken out for low-income, disabled and English language learners, Hillsborough excelled.
"Across the board, Hillsborough is in some cases substantially higher but clearly higher than the Miami-Dades in the world or the national average," she said.
Hillsborough's impressive graduation rates and large number of A and B high schools, similarly, are open to interpretation.
Critics say Florida's graduation rates are inflated because the formula excludes thousands of struggling students who transfer into adult education classes and often drop out.
And the grading system for high schools is based on such a complicated formula that Chamberlain High School got an A while Bloomingdale High School got a B, even though Bloomingdale's reading proficiency rate was 20 points higher.
White, the School Board member, wants to see district leaders go beyond the numbers and talk honestly about troublesome issues.
"I think we are overly focused on data sometimes," he said. "Morale is hurting in the district a little bit. Front-line employees need tender loving care. What we see sometimes is the upper echelon singing our praises too much."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]