Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Mixed results for high school grades in Pinellas

There was good news and not-so-good news for Pinellas high schools Wednesday.

Good: For the first time in nearly a decade, no Pinellas high schools earned D or F grades in 2011.

Not so good: Even though the district's share of B schools rose, its A high schools slipped from seven to two.

All told, 88 percent of Pinellas high schools got either an A or a B. The statewide average is 78 percent.

"If you put stock in A, B, C, D, F grades, which the public certainly does, we're very pleased," superintendent John Stewart said in a written statement.

But Stewart also made a pointed nod to stagnant high school reading scores, which dragged some grades down. The district has a lot of work to do with reading, he said — starting in elementary schools.

"You do not teach students to read in high school."

The story in Pinellas mostly mirrored what happened around Tampa Bay and across the state.

The percentage of A and B schools statewide climbed (from 71 to 78 percent) and the number of D and F schools dropped (from 68 to 31).

Yet educators conceded this year may be a high-water mark, given that tests, as well as formulas for graduation rates and school grades, are about to get more stringent.

"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."

All four Pinellas schools under state oversight for poor performance — Gibbs, Lakewood, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins — did better.

Gibbs, which received an F two years ago, moved from C to B, as did Lakewood. Dixie Hollins earned a C after seven years as a D. Boca Ciega earned a C after eight years as a D.

"The people here a long time, you can feel the burden being lifted off them," said Boca Ciega principal Michael Vigue.

The biggest improvement went to Largo High: D to B.

"A 'C' would be an improvement. A 'B' would be awesome," said Largo principal Marjorie Sundstrom. "We got the awesome."

More schools would have been high-fiving Wednesday but for two penalty provisions in the grading formula. Schools are knocked down a grade if they don't get enough improvement from their most struggling students. They're also penalized if they don't graduate enough students deemed at-risk due to past testing performance.

Statewide, 198 schools were snared by at least one of these penalties, 42 percent of the total. Nine of Pinellas' 16 traditional high schools were hit.

St. Petersburg High dropped from A to B because 63 percent of its at-risk students graduated. The bar was set at 75 percent.

"Obviously, we're going to put a laserlike focus on that," said principal Al Bennett.

High school grades, always controversial, have been rising since the state moved to a new formula two years ago. The new system factors in other academic indicators besides the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, including graduation rates and participation in rigorous courses like Advanced Placement.

Some have knocked the new formula as too easy, and fear it is giving a false impression.

Gibbs, for example, has moved from F to B in three years even though the percentage of students reading at or above their appropriate grade level has inched from 34 to 36 over that span. Among nonmagnet students last year, 9 percent were reading at or above grade level.

"The state recognized that high school is about more than just FCAT," said former Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon, who left the school in November to become a provost at St. Petersburg College. But "there's still room for improvement."

It will have to come amid a swirl of changes this year with the state's testing and grading system.

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 doesn't have what critics consider to be rate-padding loopholes.

Some principals are frustrated by what they see as moving targets. Sundstrom, the Largo principal, is not among them.

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

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.

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