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Pasco educators criticize state grading criteria for new high schools

HUDSON — The staff at Fivay High School knew the D was coming.

The question that came along with that state grade last week was: Did the school really deserve it?

"The problem is that they're only using 50 percent" of the formula to grade the school, Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino said, referring to the Florida Department of Education.

Fivay opened in 2010-11 without seniors. That meant it would not be evaluated on half the state's high school grading criteria, which includes graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores, and accelerated course performance of juniors and seniors.

Only its FCAT results would count toward the grade, despite the state's move away from that method as incomplete.

It's the same thing that happened to Anclote High School the year before. Anclote earned an F based on its 2010 FCAT performance, only to see its grade bounce to an A in 2011 as more factors came into play.

Anclote benefited from maximum bonus points earned from showing growth in the areas where it had no data the year before. Improving from a 0 percent graduation rate to 74 percent, for example, netted the school 20 of 80 extra points, which would be difficult to receive again.

The county's other high schools averaged just under 30 bonus points, with a high of 45 to Mitchell and a low of 18 to Pasco — each of which got an A grade.

That's not to say Anclote didn't improve: Its FCAT scores alone would have boosted the grade to C. Combined with the other factors, even with no bonus points, it would have received a B.

The same scenario could await Fivay at the end of this year as it logs in its first senior class.

Still, Fiorentino suggested such a roller coaster ride, with the social stigma that low state grades convey to many in the community, is both misleading and unfair.

"Years ago, we used to say the first year (of a new school) should be a base year," said Fiorentino, who helped write the state grading system as a Florida House member.

But lawmakers changed that rule over time. After the Legislature adopted the more extensive high school grading system in 2009, the State Board of Education implemented rules stating that if a school didn't have enough students to generate data for the categories such as graduation rate, just the FCAT scores would count.

The board did not make any special accommodations for brand new schools.

Deputy Florida commissioner of education Kris Ellington said the state continues to evaluate the methodology behind the setting of school grades. The rules are up for reconsideration this month.

So far, she said, the question of grades for newly opened schools has not come up in advisory committee meetings, although there's still time for the discussion to take place. She expected that a change could be a hard sell, though, because state leaders are moving toward increased school grading.

"To not give a grade to a class of public schools is actually the opposite direction of where we are going," she said.

Fivay High principal Angie Stone said she would have preferred not having her school labeled a D in its first year.

The students and staff made great improvements, she said. More than half of the juniors — more than 100 — began that year having not passed the FCAT reading test, but by the end of the second semester that number had shrunk to 41.

By December, that group had further reduced to 20.

"We made a huge push to get those kids on track for graduation," Stone said. "We didn't do it for credit. We did it to get them ready to graduate."

It would have been nice, nonetheless, to have the state grade reflect the growth that other schools are recognized for, she said.

She noted that the school's FCAT results were just 13 points shy of a C. The school's discipline referrals have declined, and the staff has worked with incoming ninth graders to understand the importance of staying on track from the start of high school.

"We are very proud of what we've done," Stone said. "I wish we hadn't had a grade in our first year. I don't think there was enough data there. But that is the world we live in."

At least now the school knows where it started, and it has something to shoot for.

In the meantime, Fiorentino, who sits on the commissioner's leadership policy advisory committee, said she intended to propose changes to the grading formula. The State Board of Education is scheduled to have a workshop on the rules later this month.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco educators criticize state grading criteria for new high schools 01/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 7:52pm]
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