As they confronted the biggest drop in elementary school grades in at least eight years, Florida superintendents continued an unprecedented effort Friday to challenge the validity of this year's FCAT scores.
The Pinellas County School District learned it has eight D and F elementary schools — up from zero last year — due to tumbling reading scores. Hillsborough County also has eight, up from one.
The grades released Friday led Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen and Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia to say the state has too quickly dismissed district concerns about statistical anomalies.
"That's fine for adults to play that way, but who is really being impacted?" Janssen said. "It's not right to play these games on the backs of children."
The superintendents are being "selfish," countered the state's top education official.
"If you get a valid answer that makes sense, you're supposed to move on," said T. Willard Fair, chairman of the state Board of Education, referring to three independent audits that found no problems with the scores. "It's all about how they are going to be perceived by the public as to how they're doing their job."
The four-week barrage over the reliability of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — launched by Elia and other superintendents on July 12 — has created even more suspicion about a test that many parents and teachers have never trusted.
The latest results caught many principals off guard.
"My initial reaction is, 'Ouch. It really hurts,' " said Karen Russell, principal at Woodlawn Elementary in St. Petersburg, which fell from a B to an F. "There were quite a few challenges we faced, we knew that. We didn't expect this."
Eighty-six percent of the students at Woodlawn qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The school directed more resources toward earlier grades last year, thinking it may cause short-term drops in the upper grades but would pay off with a stronger foundation for younger students.
Despite doubts about the accuracy of the FCAT data, Russell said there's no time for finger-pointing.
"It's my job to take a look and see how we can fix this," she said.
FCAT results help determine placement for students, teachers and principals. Lower scores could mean more students identified for extra help, as well as staffing changes, including additional academic coaches in schools that saw the biggest drops.
Despite the audits, the state superintendents association issued a scathing statement Thursday night, listing concerns it says were not answered by the Florida Department of Education, and requesting that school grades be delayed.
The head of the association suggested Friday that the FCAT scores will wind up in court, even if it's not his group that files suit.
"I would be real surprised if someone does not step up on behalf of the students of Florida and say, 'We can't stop here, we have to move forward until we can be assured that the data … is accurate,' '' said Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
District officials are especially alarmed by steep drops in the number of fourth- and fifth-graders making reading gains.
The concerns are highly technical, involving the complicated processes that go into making a standardized test.
Among other things, the superintendents wanted the department to see if a change in content on some of the reading tests — for example, a greater emphasis on main idea and purpose, which students struggle with more — might have caused the dips.
Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith posted a point-by-point rebuttal to the superintendents on the department's website shortly before the grades were released. He continued his defense during a noon conference call with the media.
Several factors likely played a role in the drop in grades, he said, including the economy's crunch on families and funding cuts in reading programs. He also said it is increasingly difficult for the lowest-performing students to keep making gains on top of the progress they've already made in recent years.
Considering the scores and school grades were already late, Smith said he saw no reason for further delay. "We have a total of three good, clean audits and I think that should suffice that the process we're using is a process to be trusted," he said.
Because of a change in the grading formula, high school grades won't be released until late in the year.
Among elementary schools statewide, the number of A grades dropped from 1,262 to 950 — a decline five times greater than any previous year. The number of C, D and F grades doubled.
In Pinellas, Lakewood, Woodlawn and Fairmount Park elementary schools, all in St. Petersburg, earned F's, making them the first traditional elementary schools in Pinellas to earn an F in years. The Imagine charter school in St. Petersburg also earned an F, its second in a row.
Some principals said they were resigned to living with the results, however skeptical they might be.
On the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Blanton Elementary missed an A — and the $75-per-student state bonus that comes with it — by a hair.
"So we lose $65,000 and the Mayor's Top Apple Award by two points. Next year we try harder," principal Debi Turner said in an e-mail. "We have 600 students returning on 8/23 who are more important than FCAT!"
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.