The St. Johns and Miami-Dade school districts aren't exactly two peas in a pod. St. Johns, on Jacksonville's tony southern border, has 31,000 students and the lowest rate of poor kids in Florida. Miami-Dade, the state's biggest district, has 350,000 students, with 70 percent eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch.
So which district is better?
By one measure, St. Johns is. Looking at the number of FCAT points the district earned last year, it's No. 1 among Florida's 67 districts, while Miami-Dade is No. 37.
But if the numbers are crunched to gauge long-term improvement, it's Miami-Dade's turn to flex.
According to a Tampa Bay Times analysis, no big district in Florida has done better in boosting the percentage of students passing the FCAT in reading and math from 2001 to 2010. In reading progress, Miami-Dade ranked No. 2 among all districts, while St. Johns ranked No. 16.
Gov. Rick Scott is set today to release a first-ever ranking of the state's school districts, apparently based on a snapshot of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results. It remains to be seen which numbers he uses. But superintendents and others fear a too-simple matrix that doesn't consider a district's size, demographics or progress — and that will leave a misleading impression of which districts really are top dog.
The Times analysis did include those factors and may offer a more nuanced picture. But even then, experts suggest a few grains of salt. Rankings can be useful or not depending on the care that goes into creating, explaining and interpreting them, they said.
Just don't expect them to go away.
"In this environment, where there's so much data now, someone will rank," said Andrew Rotherham, who edits the influential Eduwonk blog. "The conversation should be, what's the more useful way?"
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Many believe Scott will use FCAT points as the basis for his ranking.
FCAT points are awarded to districts each year in the same way they're awarded to schools, based on a formula that includes the percent of students passing; the percent making decent gains; and the progress of students who were furthest behind. As they are with schools, the points are translated into grades for districts, but they've never been converted into official rankings.
The Times looked at FCAT scores in a different way: at districtwide proficiency data that had been combined across all grade levels. Students must score at a level 3 or above in the FCAT's 1 to 5 scale to be considered proficient.
The state began administering the reading and math FCAT to grades 3-10 in 2001, so the period 2001 to 2010 represents the first, full decade of high-stakes, test-based accountability. (In 2011, the state moved to a new version of the FCAT that can't be easily compared to its predecessor.)
Over that span, the Times found a lot of variation from district to district. It often seemed to reflect demographics — but not always.
Dixie County in Florida's Big Bend area is No. 58 in percentage of low-income students (ranked from lowest to highest). But in 2010, it ranked No. 44 in reading and No. 32 in math (ranked from highest to lowest). Over the past decade, no district made bigger gains in math.
The analysis shows Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are making progress. But they've made less progress than just about every other big district — and most districts, period.
Pinellas ranked No. 53 in reading gains and No. 49 in math gains. Hillsborough ranked No. 44 and No. 57.
"It's devastating how much we have slipped," Pinellas School Board member Terry Krassner said after reviewing Times data that compared Pinellas with other big districts. But with the hiring of superintendent John Stewart in September, "I absolutely feel we're back on track."
"I think it's great we're continuing to grow, but I'm not happy with every one of these scores," Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.
Elia pointed to what she saw as a shortcoming in the analysis: It did not examine progress in moving students out of the lowest tier on the FCAT's 1 to 5 achievement levels.
"The Level 1 issue, particularly when you're talking of minority students, is a very critical issue," she said.
Some education researchers who reviewed the results also suggested looking at that data. The Times requested additional FCAT data on the percentage of students scoring at the lower levels from the Florida Department of Education in early November and multiple times afterward. But the department did not provide the information and would not say whether it was available.
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U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges. Newsweek ranks high schools. Education Week ranks states.
The world loves lists. And the accountability impulses that have put individual schools and states under the microscope are starting to more closely compare and scrutinize school districts.
Last year, newspapers in Buffalo, N.Y., and Boston numerically ranked districts. So did the Ohio Department of Education, in line with a new state law.
Rankings, as opposed to ratings like grades, have a "competitive appeal," said Sherman Dorn, an education professor at the University of South Florida. But they can also distort by oversimplifying.
He and other researchers cautioned, for example, that only a few points may separate clumps of school districts, whether it's in the Times analysis or what Gov. Scott is releasing. Dorn suggested that some rankings say more about who's doing the ranking.
Scott's office "doesn't care about the method, they just want the attention," Dorn said. "It's a Lady Gaga strategy."
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.
About the data
The Tampa Bay Times analyzed 10 years’ worth of data from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in an effort to measure progress with the one indicator that continues to matter the most in the state’s accountability system.
Some education researchers urge caution in drawing strong conclusions. Among the reasons: Districts that appear to be lagging may have started the decade with a higher proportion of high-achieving students, so they had less room to grow. Districts that appear to be accelerating may have had so many low performers, they could make bigger gains. In some cases, a percentage point or two separates many districts.
Coming Sunday: How Tampa Bay districts stack up.