ZEPHYRHILLS — Principal Julie Marks could sense the stress in her school as the year began in August.
Chester Taylor Elementary had received its second consecutive D grade from the state. A third could lead to forced faculty changes.
The staff vowed to improve, but quickly spotted a problem beyond their control. Although their classes were based on the new Common Core State Standards, their students would be taking the old FCAT, which didn't line up with what they were teaching.
Making matters worse, the talk in Tallahassee was of continued tinkering that could affect them for years. State officials now wanted to revise the brand-new standards, and suddenly they were changing course on plans to replace the FCAT.
The discussion continues Tuesday, when the State Board of Education considers proposed revisions to the standards. It continues through the spring as education officials work through the major task of finding a different standardized test. Those decisions will lead to significant changes in how schools are graded for a school year that begins in just seven months.
"All the uncertainty is a struggle," said Marks, who asked Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning to reassure her staffers that their efforts were noted and appreciated. "We all just keep saying, it's about the kids."
Florida's circumstance, and its difficulties, are not unusual.
"Given the degree of change, the simultaneous timing of these reforms, and their interconnectedness, many states — Florida included — are struggling to form a long-term plan, and for good reason. They are essentially creating an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine," said Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst for New America Foundation.
The resulting educator angst should not come as a surprise, Hyslop suggested.
"Teachers and students don't know what tests will be given next year, and they won't get a preview of these assessments through field testing," she said. "All of this is understandably frustrating for educators, who know these tests will be used for accountability purposes whatever they end up looking like."
The state has received five bids to provide Florida's new test. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is reviewing the proposals and plans to announce her selection in March.
Perhaps surprisingly, the test isn't what bothers teachers at Taylor Elementary the most.
"If you've got professionals behind it, building it, I trust it," fifth-grade teacher John Jacobs said, adding that he doesn't worry about an assessment that explores the standards he's teaching.
What irks Jacobs and fellow fifth-grade teacher Lynne Harrison is the transition period from Florida's Next Generation Sunshine State Standards to the Common Core.
They've begun teaching the new standards, which they actually like, but their students still are taking the old test. And the two don't always jibe.
Harrison noted that the way exponents are taught under Common Core, for example, would not be adequate to pass the fifth-grade FCAT. She cited area and volume as another area of disconnect. The old standards taught those concepts in fifth grade but the new ones do it earlier.
"If we're not giving them the Next Generation standards, we set them up to fail on FCAT. If we're not giving them the Common Core standards, we're setting them up to fail in sixth grade," Harrison said. "We try to balance both."
The teachers have pored over the content to ensure they don't miss anything their students need. If they didn't do that, Jacobs said, the price would be too high.
A low FCAT grade can hinder a student's advancement in middle school. At the same time, the school's state grade could suffer, leading to state-mandated interventions that might not really be needed.
Such concerns are not limited to elementary schools.
The state's changing requirements on end-of-course exams has tied up high schools, where administrators, counselors and teachers are trying to make sure that students don't inadvertently miss taking a test that could hinder their graduation.
Just about every grade level has different rules governing their Algebra I exam, for instance. And this year's seniors who took the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam might not have taken the end-of-course test in the subject, which could mean they don't get the state's new and more desired "scholars" diploma.
"The most difficult thing for us is making sure we're doing right by the kids, because there's different requirements for every kid," said Kim Davis, principal of Pasco's Gulf High School.
Davis said her staff does take testing and other data associated with school grading seriously. Gulf High could have made an A in 2012 if not for its low graduation rate for at-risk students, she noted, so it focused on those students' success and earned the top mark in 2013.
But however they end up being calculated, grades have to take a back seat to reality inside the school, she said. "Of course we get frustrated," Davis said. "But we focus on what we can control."
Florida's superintendents have called on lawmakers and the State Board of Education to take more time implementing the Common Core, its associated tests and the new school grading system. That way, they argued, teachers and students can more adequately prepare for the demands, which continue to change and include many unknowns.
Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick said he understood the confusion within the schools, given all the hue and cry in the political sphere. But in reality, Follick said, nothing really has changed on the transition timeline since the Board of Education adopted the Common Core in 2010.
A few adjustments, mostly minor, have been proposed to the standards, but none have been adopted. The standards for testing remain the same as they would have been for 2014.
The move to replace the FCAT with a test that aligns with the Common Core remains on target for next school year, he said. Related discussions over teacher evaluations and school grading always were subject to the whims of lawmakers and the board, Follick added, but even those have not changed much yet.
"Our focus remains on what is best for teachers and students," he said.
Folks in the schools aren't fully convinced. They've seen the state alter school grading criteria with dozens of formula changes the last couple of years.
Marks, the principal at Chester Taylor, noted that her students made great strides to improve their writing performance after the state made the grading tougher, only to see the state raise the passing level from 3.0 to 3.5. All the hard work and growth was dismissed with that single move, she said.
And no one can provide information about what the next system will look like as everyone tries to get there.
"The unknown is very difficult at the school level," Marks said. "The teachers are doing everything in their power to ensure our kids are getting what they think right now is good for kids. Everything changes on us. You just do the best you can with what we're living with now."
For better or worse, change is the real status quo in Florida education, she and others observed. The professionals do their best to work within it.
"We can't control what goes on in that big bad world," said Davis, the Gulf High principal. "We can only control what goes on in this building."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.