WESLEY CHAPEL — Watergrass Elementary School caught a break when the Florida Department of Education issued school grades on Wednesday.
Based on FCAT performance, Watergrass earned enough points to receive a C. Thanks to a State Board of Education decision to limit grade drops to one letter this year, the formerly A-rated school instead received a B.
Its result could have been far worse.
Had the State Board not also lowered the passing score for FCAT writing earlier in the spring, Watergrass would have dropped to an F. The board acted at a hastily called meeting after learning that about a third of students would pass with a score of 4.0 or better, compared with nearly 80 percent at a score of 3.0 or better.
School leaders aren't sitting back and admiring their B.
"We obviously have some work to do," principal Scott Mitchell said Friday. "There are so many variables. When I get back Monday, we're going to start looking at it."
Watergrass is hardly the only school to benefit from the many temporary provisions the State Board put in place to ease the transition to new and tougher standards, tests and scoring. In addition to allowing grades to drop by only one letter, and changing the writing proficiency level, the state also waived a rule requiring schools to show gains in at least half their lowest quarter of students in both math and reading.
"We wanted to make this a year of transition for not only the schools, but also for the students, teachers and parents," Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson told reporters.
That was especially important, Robinson said, because so many of the changes took place midway through the academic year. Everyone needed more time to adjust, he said.
Almost 400 schools statewide, including 11 in Pasco County, were cushioned by the one letter grade drop provision. The state did not calculate how many gained by the waiver of the gains among low performing students rule, or by the lowering of the FCAT writing score.
"The vast majority of schools were held harmless by the board's vote" on FCAT writing, Robinson told reporters.
Indeed, had that score not been reduced, 49 of 61 Pasco traditional elementary and middle schools would have seen their grades drop at least one grade level, according to a Times analysis. Just one school — Quail Hollow Elementary — could have seen its grade decline even further by failing to have adequate gains among its lowest performing students in one of the past two school years. (High school grades don't come out until the fall.)
Pasco district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said top administrators are well aware that the full scope of school grade changes did not take effect this year. They have been reviewing performance data well before the grades came, she said, to determine which schools need extra help.
"We will be giving tiered support based on their data, not necessarily on their grade," Romagnoli said, noting that attendance and discipline statistics also play a factor.
Officials plan to convene this week to finalize what types of assistance each school requires, and whether any other schools need to go on the list. The list currently includes Gulf Highlands, Lacoochee, Hudson, Marlowe, Calusa, Chester Taylor, Northwest, Pasco and Cotee River elementary schools; Gulf, Hudson, Stewart and Chasco middle schools; and Ridgewood, Fivay and Zephyrhills high schools.
Of course, some schools aren't in line for any extras.
Eleven Pasco schools would have maintained A grades even after taking into consideration the many cushions the state implemented, as well as the tougher standards. Those schools are John Long, Pine View and Seven Springs middle schools; and Lake Myrtle, Longleaf, Odessa, Seven Oaks, Trinity, Trinity Oaks, Veterans and Wesley Chapel elementary schools.
The majority of those have the county's lowest rates of poverty, as determined by percentages of students receiving free and reduced-price meals. (In Pasco, that means somewhere between 16 percent and 42 percent.)
Some critics of the state testing system have suggested that such results indicate the FCAT is more a measure of community wealth than academic achievement.
B.J. Smith, principal of A-rated Seven Oaks Elementary School, differs.
Smith, who led Title-I Anclote Elementary to several A grades before moving to more suburban Seven Oaks, said a school's performance has as much to do with its philosophy and faculty leadership as its student demographics.
"I don't look for grades," she said. "That's not what we're working for."
The faculty looks at performance data for all grade levels in several assessments, and not just the FCAT, throughout the year, she said. The goal is to align what is happening in the classrooms with what the school wants students to know and be able to do.
Every quarter the teams gather to refine their techniques.
"It's the commitment of the staff," Smith said, adding that a good school grade can at least keep morale up. "They are able to say, 'Yeah, we did it.' "
The state letter grade isn't what drives Watergrass Elementary, either, principal Mitchell said. But when a school receives an A, like Watergrass did in the past two years, he continued, it's easier to take the system for granted and accept what it shows.
"When you don't get an A, you talk. How important is this (school grading system)?" Mitchell said. "My bottom line is, how many kids are not being successful, and what are we going to do about that?"
The next round of work to answer that question begins Monday.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.