High school grades plunged all over Florida on Thursday, the latest sign that progress in the upper grades remains sluggish despite a decade of reforms.
The number of A high schools dropped to 68 — down nearly 50 percent — while the number of D high schools climbed from 70 to 116, according to results released by the Florida Department of Education.
The trend looked worse around the Tampa Bay area.
Two high schools improved. Nineteen held steady.
Among them: Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, which became Pinellas County's first F high school.
"It made me sick," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen.
Principals scrambled Thursday to pinpoint why they struggled more this year, particularly with their bottom-tier kids in reading. At the same time, an especially bad year for their high schools put a stark frame on a bigger picture.
It wasn't just the usual suspects who got hit. In Hillsborough, Freedom High went from an A to a C. In Hernando, Nature Coast Technical went from a B to a C.
"It's a challenge," said Frances Haithcock, Florida's K-12 chancellor. "We have a long way to go."
Critics of Florida's accountability system, largely shaped by former Gov. Jeb Bush, offered other descriptors.
"Abysmal," said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, the Democrats' point person on education issues in the state House. The high school results "show the state's accountability system . . . does not work."
School grades can bring joy or shame, rewards or sanctions. They're based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores in reading, math, writing and science.
Schools that make A grades or improve their grades get bragging rights, plus a modest share of reward money that totaled $147 million last year. Schools that make poor grades get branded with the stigma and are subject to increased oversight.
Not all the news was bad Thursday.
Statewide, 1,822 schools earned A grades, 237 more than last year. Six schools leaped from F's to A's.
"Give me a hug!" principal Christi Buell told her teachers at Sulphur Springs Elementary in Tampa, after learning the school had moved up from an F to a B.
The state also announced how Florida schools fared under federal standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act. The result, again, was not good. Only 23 percent made "adequate yearly progress."
But all of that was overshadowed by the high school grades.
In the short term, the results show more high schools struggled this year with their lowest performing students. Under the state's grading formula, schools that don't make enough progress with those students get docked a full letter grade.
Last year, 78 high schools got whacked. This year, 106 did.
At Central High in Brooksville, principal Dennis McGeehan was at a loss to explain why.
"Something just didn't come across," he said.
There's plenty of speculation. Maybe budget cuts whittled away at programs for struggling students. (Pinellas alone cut 63 reading coaches.) Maybe the lame economy put more strain on at-risk kids. Maybe the scores just reflect the natural ups and downs that come with standardized testing.
Then again, maybe a tweak in the grading formula last year made this year's drop look worse. Sixty-three high schools did not get penalized a grade last year after the state Board of Education eased the requirement on the lowest-performing students.
Regardless, a one-year dip wouldn't attract so much attention if it wasn't for a long-term funk.
In the past decade, Florida's elementary students have made big strides, and middle school students are beginning to perk up. But since 2001, the percentage of high school students reading at grade level has grown more modestly, from 32 percent to 42 percent. This year's scores didn't budge after three years of gains.
Former K-12 chancellor Jim Warford said we shouldn't be surprised.
The state has done a good job beefing up academic standards and increasing expectations, he said. But it hasn't done as well making students realize why their classes matter.
"Kids don't get more stupid or less capable in high school. It's just not relevant (to them)," said Warford, who now heads the Florida Association of School Administrators. "These are iPhone kids. Our schools are still chalkboard worlds."
The state knows it must find ways to get high schools moving, said Haithcock, the current chancellor.
It's pushing more career and technical education. It's pushing Advanced Placement classes. It has come up with more precise ways to get kids reading better.
Haithcock said there's reason for hope, too, in the growing numbers of kids testing better in early grades.
"We're hopeful that in the next two, three, four years we are going to see high schools . . . not stall," she said.
Neither Haithcock nor Warford would rule out an irony at play.
In the past decade, Florida's drop-out rate has fallen substantially, from 5.4 percent to 2.6 percent, according to Department of Education figures. But progress on that front may have left more marginal students to drag down test scores.
Whatever the reasons behind this year's report card, making the grade won't get easier.
Beginning this fall, Florida will evaluate high schools on a slew of factors besides FCAT scores, including graduation rates and AP results.
A computer simulation found a third of them would drop a grade.
Times staff writers Donna Winchester, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tom Marshall and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.