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The best school district in Florida? It all depends on how you slice the numbers

Claudia Penabad, center, and other students work on essays as River Ridge High in New Port Richey prepares its 10th-graders for the FCAT writing exam with a three-day writing workshop.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times (2010)

Claudia Penabad, center, and other students work on essays as River Ridge High in New Port Richey prepares its 10th-graders for the FCAT writing exam with a three-day writing workshop.

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?"

• • •

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.

• • •

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 matus@tampabay.com 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.

How they scored

The Tampa Bay Times looked at 10 years of district-level FCAT reading and math data. The state Department of Education provided the Times with districtwide proficiency data combined for grades 3-10. The Times looked at the percentage of students scoring at grade level or above in each district and how that percentage changed over time.

Math

2001 percent 2001 rank 2010 percent 2010 rank Change (in pct. points)
Florida 50 68
Dixie 36.84 62 66.96 32 30.12
Glades 41.23 57 71.17 20 29.94
Sumter 45.05 51 73.65 13 28.59
Desoto 36.34 63 64.57 47 28.23
Dade 38.14 61 64.96 45 26.81
Gadsden 28.94 66 54.81 64 25.86
Nassau 53.46 26 76.10 8 22.64
Hendry 40.52 60 63.08 52 22.55
Baker 48.80 43 71.05 21 22.24
Duval 42.11 56 63.54 50 21.43
Gilchrist 57.04 15 78.28 3 21.24
Taylor 44.57 52 65.43 41 20.86
Walton 53.30 27 73.96 12 20.66
Palm Beach 51.23 36 71.72 18 20.48
Columbia 45.23 50 65.25 42 20.02
St. Johns 60.22 9 80.11 1 19.89
Orange 45.86 49 65.55 40 19.70
Putnam 40.63 59 60.33 61 19.69
Okaloosa 60.25 8 79.39 2 19.14
Marion 48.86 42 66.85 34 17.99
Citrus 54.34 21 72.27 16 17.93
Hernando 50.31 40 68.18 26 17.87
Osceola 40.84 58 58.52 62 17.68
Broward 53.74 25 71.22 19 17.48
Indian River 50.09 41 67.45 29 17.36
Franklin 44.30 53 61.64 56 17.34
Madison 30.67 65 47.84 65 17.17
Jackson 50.87 37 68.03 27 17.16
Suwannee 44.19 54 61.04 58 16.85
Wakulla 58.54 13 75.34 10 16.80
Union 51.39 34 68.00 28 16.61
Bay 52.97 29 69.58 24 16.61
Seminole 61.03 6 77.61 5 16.58
Jefferson 25.00 67 41.28 67 16.28
Gulf 53.79 24 69.98 23 16.19
Highlands 47.29 45 63.31 51 16.03
Hardee 46.75 47 62.78 53 16.02
Martin 60.72 7 76.30 7 15.58
Lee 51.54 33 66.94 33 15.40
Clay 59.48 12 74.81 11 15.33
Lafayette 53.93 23 68.97 25 15.04
Polk 45.91 48 60.94 60 15.03
Monroe 57.24 14 71.97 17 14.73
Brevard 62.67 3 77.27 6 14.59
Pasco 50.31 39 64.68 46 14.37
Lake 52.59 30 66.74 36 14.15
St. Lucie 47.14 46 61.00 59 13.86
Bradford 42.12 55 55.89 63 13.77
Pinellas 52.48 31 66.18 37 13.70
Escambia 47.95 44 61.63 57 13.67
Charlotte 59.66 11 72.78 14 13.12
Levy 51.23 35 64.34 49 13.11
Sarasota 62.60 4 75.40 9 12.80
Hamilton 33.78 64 46.41 66 12.64
Santa Rosa 65.85 1 78.23 4 12.38
Alachua 54.80 18 66.78 35 11.98
Hillsborough 55.24 17 66.96 31 11.72
Okeechobee 50.44 38 62.00 55 11.56
Washington 53.02 28 64.50 48 11.48
Liberty 54.30 22 65.75 39 11.45
Collier 55.31 16 66.00 38 10.69
Holmes 54.60 20 65.06 43 10.46
Volusia 54.76 19 64.96 44 10.19
Manatee 52.35 32 62.25 54 9.91
Leon 62.36 5 70.92 22 8.56
Calhoun 64.90 2 72.68 15 7.78
Flagler 60.21 10 67.04 30 6.84

Reading

2001 percent 2001 rank 2010 percent 2010 rank Change (in pct. points)
Florida 47 62
Gilchrist 45.92 45 70.25 7 24.32
Dade 33.93 62 57.98 48 24.05
Desoto 32.20 65 55.84 54 23.63
Sumter 43.13 53 65.11 19 21.98
Glades 40.88 55 62.23 29 21.35
Dixie 39.52 57 59.26 44 19.75
Orange 41.72 54 60.60 40 18.87
Gadsden 23.84 67 42.56 66 18.73
Baker 44.00 51 62.33 28 18.33
Nassau 51.81 21 70.10 9 18.29
Palm Beach 46.13 43 63.03 25 16.90
Osceola 38.28 60 55.11 56 16.84
Hendry 36.16 61 51.61 63 15.45
Okaloosa 58.34 9 73.66 3 15.33
Hardee 38.97 59 53.99 59 15.02
St. Johns 59.93 2 74.69 1 14.76
Broward 47.75 37 62.51 27 14.76
Columbia 47.23 40 61.96 31 14.73
Union 48.65 34 63.33 23 14.68
Indian River 49.51 31 63.98 21 14.47
Walton 53.33 17 67.74 13 14.42
Pasco 48.46 36 62.16 30 13.70
Bradford 39.50 58 53.09 61 13.59
Citrus 51.68 22 65.22 18 13.54
Seminole 58.34 10 71.84 5 13.51
Brevard 58.57 8 72.03 4 13.46
Gulf 52.37 19 65.68 16 13.31
Duval 44.51 48 57.80 49 13.29
Lee 50.07 27 63.28 24 13.21
Putnam 39.69 56 52.53 62 12.84
Taylor 46.38 42 59.09 46 12.70
Hernando 50.44 25 62.94 26 12.50
Franklin 44.17 50 56.66 51 12.49
Marion 46.71 41 59.17 45 12.46
Holmes 47.61 39 59.98 43 12.37
Collier 49.52 30 61.87 32 12.35
Clay 56.51 11 68.79 11 12.28
Jackson 48.57 35 60.83 39 12.26
Jefferson 27.90 66 39.97 67 12.07
Sarasota 58.68 6 70.72 6 12.04
Hamilton 32.83 63 44.69 64 11.85
Madison 32.68 64 44.41 65 11.73
Washington 50.03 29 61.73 34 11.70
Hillsborough 48.80 33 60.37 41 11.57
Martin 58.65 7 70.22 8 11.56
Polk 43.77 52 54.98 57 11.21
Lake 50.04 28 60.98 38 10.94
Wakulla 58.76 5 69.65 10 10.89
Highlands 45.47 47 56.31 53 10.84
Charlotte 54.26 16 65.04 20 10.78
Bay 54.75 15 65.49 17 10.74
Santa Rosa 63.48 1 74.18 2 10.70
Pinellas 50.88 24 61.56 36 10.68
Monroe 56.08 12 66.75 14 10.67
Suwannee 44.43 49 54.93 58 10.50
Volusia 51.50 23 61.65 35 10.15
St. Lucie 45.81 46 55.71 55 9.91
Alachua 52.28 20 61.43 37 9.15
Calhoun 59.08 4 68.20 12 9.13
Levy 47.75 38 56.43 52 8.68
Escambia 48.83 32 57.38 50 8.55
Flagler 55.49 13 63.71 22 8.22
Manatee 50.21 26 58.37 47 8.16
Okeechobee 45.93 44 53.94 60 8.01
Liberty 54.83 14 61.81 33 6.98
Lafayette 53.31 18 60.00 42 6.69
Leon 59.44 3 66.08 15 6.64

The best school district in Florida? It all depends on how you slice the numbers 01/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 11:30am]

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