TAMPA — Dozens of elementary and middle schools in Hillsborough County got D's on Wednesday under the state's tougher grading system.
Higher standards and the inclusion of test scores by learning-disabled students and new English speakers increased the number of D's from eight last year to 31, according to results released by the state Department of Education.
But it could have been worse: 33 schools were spared lower grades by a rule designed to cushion the blow.
For example, West Tampa Elementary, with 347 points out of a possible 800, would have dropped from an A all the way to an F.
Instead, it got a B.
And there was good news with 59 percent of elementary and middle schools that got A's or B's despite the new standards.
"It is a fabulous day at Apollo Beach Elementary," said principal Jaime Gerding, who learned, along with her assistant principal, that her school had climbed from a B to an A. "We gave each other high-fives. We're celebrating."
In a news release, superintendent MaryEllen Elia congratulated the schools that improved, including Apollo Beach, Broward, Chiaramonte and Heritage elementary schools.
"We knew that the raised standards would have an impact. Despite the fact that we are in a transition year, most of our schools earned A or B, half of our schools maintained their grade, and several improved their grade," Elia said. "That's a direct result of the hard work of our students and teachers."
There was disappointment, however, at Franklin Boys Preparatory School, a showcase in the single-gender education movement.
In its first year as an all-male middle school with a focus on community service and academic rigor, the east Tampa magnet dropped from a low C to a D.
"I'm all for raising our standards," said principal John Haley. "But a single grade is not an accurate description of what we do here. And at the end of the day, people are looking at one single letter."
The school grade release follows a spate of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test news that has fueled a movement against excessive standardized tests.
Districts around the state have been calling for a reduction in testing and a lessening of consequences as a result of scores. The Hillsborough School Board will hold a workshop on testing at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Bracing for a backlash, Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson posted a letter to parents that cautioned them against making year-to-year comparisons.
Changes were expected, he wrote, for two key reasons. The FCAT, which is used to calculate the grades, moved to tougher standards.
And to qualify for a federal waiver that streamlined testing, Florida agreed to include the scores of all students, including those who are learning-disabled and those who are just mastering English.
"Each time Florida's school grading system has increased expectations, student performance has improved over time, which is the primary goal of Florida's accountability system," Robinson wrote. He followed the letter with automated calls to parents.
To ease concerns, the State Board of Education decided this spring that no school would be allowed to drop more than one letter, regardless of its score.
Gerding, at Apollo Beach, credited her school's success to a campaign that began at the beginning of the last school year with two sets of directed assessments, performed by the teachers.
They analyzed data from the previous year so they could reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. And they analyzed the previous year's data for their incoming students.
They developed plans of action that were updated throughout the year. Many sought training after school and on weekends to sharpen their skills.
"Our teachers deserve this," Gerding said. "They really poured their heart and soul into their work."
At Franklin, Haley said the school had to contend not only with a tougher grading system, but also its own transition to a single-gender format.
"We know what we have to do," said Haley, though he is concerned about the school's reputation.
Back when FCAT scores were released in the spring, the school identified reading as a weakness and assigned summer novels for all students.
They'll discuss the books when they return in August.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]