When Hernando County's high school grades showed improvement last year, superintendent Bryan Blavatt tempered his praise by asserting that every high school should boast a B or an A.
Now they do.
All five of the county's high schools earned a B this year, according to data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.
Three schools — Springstead, Nature Coast Technical and Central — maintained their B grades. Hernando High improved from a C. Weeki Wachee High School, which opened in 2010, earned a B for its first letter grade.
The grades are based largely on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, but this is the second year that the state factored other components into the high school grading formula.
Among the new variables are graduation rates and participation and performance in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment courses. Weeki Wachee's grade is based solely on test scores because the school opened in 2010, so there is no data for variables such as graduation rates.
"It's very encouraging," Blavatt said. "The big thing I always emphasize is, you measure yourself against yourself, not against the world and others, and continue to get better every year."
Statewide, the percentage of high schools earning an A or B rose to 78 percent, up from 71 percent the year before. The growth came primarily in the number of schools earning a B, 224 compared to 188.
State Commissioner of Education Gerard Robinson attributed much of the statewide improvement to higher participation rates and successful performance in accelerated courses, which account for nearly one-fifth of the overall grade.
There will be little time to celebrate, however.
The strong results for 2010-11 could be a high-water mark, as many components of the high school grading system are set to change for the current school year. Performance in accelerated courses will be counted more heavily, while participation will count less. Newly adopted higher FCAT scores will take effect. The state will move to a federally approved method for calculating graduation rates, as well.
"We probably will see a decrease in the graduation rates," which account for nearly another fifth of the grade, Robinson said.
Other rule changes for school grading also are under consideration this month.
The grade distribution might decrease, deputy commissioner Kris Ellington said. "But this reflects what is valued and what is important for moving the whole system forward."
Bonus points for criteria such as Advanced Placement course participation and dual enrollment courses played a big role this year for Hernando and Central high schools, even as the percentage of low-performing students who made learning gains in reading — a key piece in the formula — dropped or remained static, said Linda Peirce, the district's testing specialist.
"They got a lot of points for increases from last year to this year," Peirce said. "As those numbers continue to go up, you'll continue to get less bonus points for improvement."
The number of students in the bottom-performing quartile at Central who made learning gains in reading dropped sharply, from 45 percent to 29 percent. At Hernando, the percentage stayed the same, at 37.
"We weren't real happy with that because we felt like we worked hard with reading remediation," said Hernando High principal Ken Pritz.
Hernando and Central were also hurt by a drop in the graduation rate for at-risk students.
Still, the letter grades are especially encouraging for those two schools as they try to build on momentum created by big gains last year. Their poor performance in recent years prompted the state to send officials to help school administrators create and implement improvement plans, and both schools faced tougher sanctions if that didn't happen. Those sanctions could include replacing administrators and staffers.
The two schools also split about $1.4 million in state grants last year. Most of the money has been used to add staff members to focus more attention on struggling students. The grades show that the action plans are working, but that there is plenty of work to do, said Pritz and Central principal Joe Clifford.
"The amount of pressure we've been putting on teachers has been consumptive, and they clearly have risen to the occasion. I couldn't be prouder of my staff and my students," Clifford said.
The overall graduation rate for Central ticked up a percentage point to 80 percent; it increased by three percentage points at Springstead, to 80 percent, and stayed static at Hernando High and Nature Coast Technical, at 75 percent and 90 percent, respectively.
The district learned last summer that its overall letter grade — which included grades released earlier for elementary and middle schools, as well as some high school data — fell from an A in 2009-10 to a B for 2010-11. No individual school slipped very far, though, and a C was the lowest grade on the report card.
Blavatt acknowledged that changes to the high school grading formula present a challenge.
"What do you do when it gets tougher? You've got to work harder," he said. "We're not going to sit and complain about it."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]