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Three Pinellas high schools stung by school grades mistake

As if a bad school grade didn't sting enough, three Pinellas high schools may need an asterisk by their latest grades.

Gibbs, Dixie Hollins and Pinellas Park high schools earned higher grades than they were given in December, according to school district officials. But the state turned down their appeals, which were based on overlooked data for a few dozen students.

Who messed up? Fingers are pointing all over.

Both school and district officials reviewed the data in question before it was filed with the state Department of Education. But district officials said they caught more errors after the grades were released.

Too late, DOE said. The district had missed the deadline to submit corrected data.

Unfair, the district said. The appeals process is too rigid.

For Dixie, which logged its seventh D in a row, the screwup is especially heartbreaking.

"That's a shame," Tom Lynd, who chairs the school advisory council, said when told why the appeal went down. "We worked really hard."

Dixie Hollins principal Dan Evans said he doesn't fault the state, but isn't sure where things went wrong. He said he and the faculty decided to move on.

"What are we going to do? Spend weeks digging this up and re-appealing and we blaming the district and the district blaming us?" he said. "It's an absurd, never-ending pursuit of something that ultimately doesn't tell you whether a school is excellent or lousy."

Thanks in part to a complicated, new grading formula, high schools statewide saw their 2010 grades rise.

In Pinellas, 13 of 16 traditional high schools saw increases. Gibbs went from an F to C. Pinellas Park, from a D to C. Besides the glow from a better grade, those schools received more than $100,000 each in state bonus money — $75 per student — for making progress.

At Gibbs, about 200 full-time staffers got $647 each after splitting $131,618. The school would not have received more money for a better grade.

But it still hurts, said Scott Crawford, who chairs the school advisory council at Gibbs.

"We want the community perspective of Gibbs to be positive," he said. "Going from an F school to a B school would have been absolutely huge … in turning that community perspective around."

Pinellas district officials thought they had good grounds to appeal. The new grading formula included scores from several standardized tests, and district officials saw after the grades were announced that some scores had not been counted because of oversights in recording and tracking.

At Gibbs and Dixie, the scores in question — less than 20 at each school — involved the Common Placement Test, or CPT, which measures the basic academic skills of those intending to go to college. At Pinellas Park, the issue involved a small number of students who took the SAT and ACT tests.

The state set several deadlines for grade-related data, including a Nov. 22 deadline for districts to submit corrected information for CPT, SAT and ACT scores. DOE officials said they could not budge on them.

Making exceptions could undermine future deadlines, which could in turn affect data quality and timeliness of school grade reporting, deputy commissioner Kris Ellington told Pinellas Superintendent Julie Janssen in a letter.

The district's response: "Would you not want to get it correct rather than meet deadlines?" said Kevin Hendrick, the district director of high schools.

Hendrick said the state's approach was different in 2009, when he was principal at Northeast High. Back then, DOE considered additional information that came to light after initial grades were issued. It bumped the school's grade from D to C.

Hendrick also took a shot at the state for last year's FCAT scores, which were weeks late because of contractor problems and put districts statewide in a bind. "The deadlines are fluid on their end," he said.

Gibbs and Dixie supporters knew the appeals had been denied. But some never knew why until told by the St. Petersburg Times.

"If I were to miscalculate a student's grade regardless of the time frame involved, I would be expected to award the student a higher grade," Dixie teacher Carol Love wrote in an e-mail. "So I can't understand Tallahassee treating our school any differently."

DOE spokeman Tom Butler said it did not appear that many other districts had problems with overlooked data. Of 27 schools that appealed their grades, only two others cited incomplete CPT results. (They, too, were denied.) "I think this issue seems to be, based on those numbers, localized to the district," he said.

Of the 27, seven won their appeals, including Plant High in Tampa. Its grade went from B to A after the state acknowledged a mistake involving graduation rates.

In Pinellas, school and district officials said they have made changes so the same thing won't happen again. In short, there will be more eyes on the data, looking at it more frequently.

Like the Dixie principal, Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon said he didn't know where things went wrong. But he said staff was so relieved from erasing the F, missing out on the B didn't cause much frustration.

In some ways, he said, the C might be better.

"Had we gotten a B, maybe there would have been a false sense of 'we did a lot right,' he said, "when we still have some stuff to improve on."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Three Pinellas high schools stung by school grades mistake 04/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2011 10:51pm]
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