After a few punishing months of tense headlines, disappointing FCAT scores and a growing public outcry about testing, Florida's school grades were as predicted Wednesday: Far fewer A schools and far more D's and F's.
Fewer than 10 percent of schools statewide improved their grade this year.
"I am really, extremely disappointed," said John Haley, principal of Franklin Boys Preparatory School in Hillsborough County, which received a D. "People look at a school grade and think it is going to be an accurate reflection of teaching and learning at a school, and it absolutely is not."
Elementary and middle schools received their grades Wednesday. High school grades will be released later this year.
Across the Tampa Bay region, about 140 schools earned A's — down from 184 last year — while 65 schools earned D's and F's. Last year, just 25 schools fell into those bottom ranks.
In Hillsborough, the number of D schools more than tripled, jumping from nine last year to 31 this year. In Pinellas, D schools more than doubled, from eight to 17. Results like these prompted a response from even those who have been less vocal about earlier disappointing scores. Florida has an "accountability system in dire need of review and repair," Pinellas County superintendent John Stewart said.
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson warned parents last week that school grades would drop because of unprecedented changes to the state's accountability system. This year, the state raised the bar to pass its new, harder FCAT, causing a decline in test scores. It also started counting the overall performance of students in special education and English-language learner programs, rather than just their learning gains.
Despite those changes, some schools performed better while others managed to hold to a good grade. Pasco and Hernando schools, smaller districts, had no F schools.
Terri Mutell, principal of Pasco's Marlowe Elementary until recently, said she was "incredibly proud" that the hard work students and teachers put forth brought the school from a D to a C.
"It's good to know that, yes, by somebody else's measure, what we did was working," said Mutell, now principal at nearby Chasco Elementary School. "I won't lament a low grade. I won't celebrate a high grade. There are so may variables that go into it, and there always have been."
In Pinellas, Westgate Elementary vaulted from a C to an A. Curlew Creek and Plumb elementaries improved from B's to A's. And in Hillsborough, Riverhills Elementary improved its F to a D, while Lomax Elementary raised its C to an A.
In Pasco, Gulf Highlands Elementary, the district's sole F school a year ago, improved to a C.
To protect schools from dramatic drops, state education officials agreed that schools wouldn't drop more than one letter grade, regardless of performance, and suspended some provisions of the grading formula. After an unexpected and dramatic decline in writing scores, the state Board of Education also dropped the passing score on that exam.
To prevent a drop of more than one grade, the state simply padded schools' scores. In some cases, one or two points made the difference between a D or an F.
On Wednesday, critics blasted the move as grade inflation, saying it had rendered the scores meaningless.
Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, a group that opposes high-stakes testing, said the grades "have as much validity as readings from a Ouija board."
Andy Ford, president of the state teachers union, said the scores were of "little value" and that many teachers "don't have faith in the arbitrary manner in which the state calculates the grades."
Robinson defended the move, calling this a "year of transition." He said it was only fair to give schools time to adjust, particularly since many of the changes were announced in the middle of the school year.
"They don't in any way show an inflation of grades. They show a transition," he said.
He also noted that the vast majority of schools wouldn't have dropped more than one letter grade.
About 388 schools — about 15 percent of 2,588 schools graded this year — benefited, Robinson said. Of those, 57 were in Tampa Bay. For some of those schools, the difference would have been dramatic.
In Hillsborough, West Tampa Elementary would have fallen from an A to an F; instead it earned a B. In Pinellas, John Hopkins Middle School earned a C, but would have dropped from a B to an F. Campbell Park Elementary was adjusted by a single point, moving it up to a D.
Robinson said the school grading system had "matured" from its beginning in 1999, and said the changes, though difficult, would prepare students for college and careers, as well as create an easier transition in a few years to Common Core, a state-led effort to create national academic standards.
"It's been tough, but Florida's going to find itself in a better place than many states in the future," he said.
Many superintendents and other school leaders, however, said the state needs to re-examine its testing model.
"We can explain all we want to about why we've seen a drop in school grades this year," Stewart said, "but bottom line, we absolutely must return the focus to our students and what's best for them."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.