LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school district leaders worried that new, tougher FCAT passing scores would hurt schools and students.
Now they have an independent report showing just how bad the results might look come spring.
If the newly adopted standard were in place for last year's test, 27 percent of students would have earned a lower achievement level in math, and 18 percent would have gotten a lower score in reading, according to a report by Hanover Research.
Hispanic students would be among the most affected, with an additional 11 percent projected to earn a Level 2 in reading, with a 7 percent decrease in those receiving a Level 3 (considered to be grade-level proficient).
"We've asked our principals to share with their staff, to be aware and to be knowledgeable that the State Board of Education has changed the way the FCAT will be scored, and it will have a negative effect on the way the schools are scored in the accountability system," assistant superintendent David Scanga said. "They're going to have to recognize within their schools that the bar has been moved."
Amid heated debate, the State Board of Education in December adopted higher FCAT passing scores to go along with a revised, tougher "2.0" version of the test. Board members said the state needed increasing rigor to keep Florida's schools competitive.
But the new passing "cut" scores carry expected consequences, such as falling school grades and more student retentions.
Elementary schools are likely to be hardest hit. Education leaders have said for years that the score to pass the elementary-level FCAT has been too low, giving the wrong impression that more students are proficient than is the case.
Witness the potential effect on Pasco third graders: Fully 58 percent of them would see their math rating drop, according to the Hanover report. Across the board, the percentage of students in Levels 1 and 2 — the lowest — would rise, often by double digits.
Sunray Elementary School in Holiday, which has recently improved its state rating to B even with increasing poverty among students, would be among those most negatively impacted. The Hanover report shows that 28 percent of Sunray children would have seen their reading achievement level decline under the new standard, and 53 percent in math.
Principal LeeAnne Yerkey said the report talks about data, but it doesn't see the reality on the ground. Sunray Elementary has implemented many academic initiatives based on what student data tells the team is needed, she said, and it's made great strides in student performance on various fronts.
"Something like this could definitely collapse the morale," Yerkey said of the report. "We're not going to let it hinder us. … It's not going to scare us."
Rather, she has begun informing school and community leaders about the possibility that the school's FCAT results might look bad in the spring so they will be aware, but also knowledgeable that the school hasn't changed its efforts and it won't.
Only the state's rating system is different.
That message is key in maintaining parent support, said Les Stearns, chairman of the Odessa Elementary School advisory committee.
Odessa would have seen 23 percent of students drop in reading achievement level, and 47 percent down in math, potentially putting its A grade in jeopardy.
"It's going to be seen as a huge negative, that Florida schools are getting even worse," said Stearns, whose son attends first grade at Odessa. "How parents understand it is really going to be key."
He contended that the change is a short-term discomfort. Over the long haul, he suggested, aiming higher will help the state's students and schools.
"Something needed to be done to get our students more ready and to be more competitive with the rest of the world," Stearns said.
Scanga agreed with that philosophy.
He noted that school districts have had to cope with the state "upping the bar" midstream in the past. That has not stopped them from continually working to improve their academic offerings, he said.
This is no different.
"It will look like something really drastic happened, but nothing really drastic happened," Scanga said.
That's how Gulf High School principal Steve Knobl is approaching the changes.
He's seen Gulf High make steady improvements in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, industry certification and college readiness results over four years, as it moved from a D to a B. The school's dropout rate declined below 1 percent, while its four-year graduation rate rose to 83 percent.
"We know we've done a good job here," Knobl said. "For me, the focus is more on maintaining quality instruction in the classroom … and maintaining support for teachers."
If the school grade drops but the performance keeps rising, he said, "I hate to say 'It is what it is,' but that's what we are dealing with."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.