LAND O'LAKES — Principal Ric Mellin made sure to thank his staff on Friday, and to have them congratulate their students as they wrapped up the first semester and headed into winter vacation.
Land O'Lakes High School had regained an A grade from the state, a year after being penalized for failing to make enough gains among its lowest performing students. It was the only Pasco County high school to exceed 70 percent of students at or above grade level in reading on the FCAT.
"It's a team effort. Everyone contributes to the success," Mellin said after Friday's release of the 2011-12 high school grades. "It's a good way to go into the break."
The news was mostly good for all of the county's high schools.
Zephyrhills High joined Land O'Lakes in improving its grade, to a B from a C. Mitchell and Wiregrass Ranch high schools maintained their A's. And five other schools kept their marks steady from the year before, although Fivay earned its second straight D. Four schools saw their grades drop from A to B.
Many superintendents and principals had predicted that school grades would drop in 2011-12 because of several changes to the formula. Those included a tougher graduation rate calculation from the federal government and higher passing scores set by the State Board of Education for the FCAT exams.
To ease the blow, the state put in place several buffers. Those included reducing the passing score on the writing portion of the FCAT, suspending the penalty for poor gains among low performers, and preventing any school from dropping more than one letter grade. The state also did not include science test results this year, because the scores for the biology end-of-course exam had not been set in time and the FCAT science exam was not given.
As a result, the state overall saw its number of A schools rise by nearly a third. Interim education commissioner Pam Stewart acknowledged that the changes, most of which will be altered or eliminated for 2012-13, made a difference in the outcome.
"I think it will be more difficult to earn the sorts of grades we earned this year," she said during a conference call with reporters. She stressed, however, that the accountability trends are showing improvement regardless.
Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning said the shifting criteria make it difficult to know whether the schools are truly improving.
"We have voiced that concern to Tallahassee," Browning said. "With the constantly moving target, how do you know where you are? It's apples to onions."
Still, he said, the grades released Friday did not worry him, and they gave a place from which the district can grow.
Andy Frelick, who became Zephyrhills High principal a few weeks ago, said he was still assessing the school's data to determine how it moved up its grade, and where it would continue to seek improvements.
"The teachers are really working overtime to do their best," Frelick said. "We're happy with where we are, and we're going to keep working hard."
Gulf High School principal Kim Davis said she was dissatisfied that her school got a B, particularly since it earned enough points for an A — as did River Ridge, Sunlake and Pasco high schools. Their B grades were a result of low graduation rates among at-risk students.
In addition to improving graduation numbers for at-risk students, Davis said, Gulf needs to improve its academic gains among the school's top students.
"We've got to look at both ends of the spectrum," she said. "We need to see what we can do to make the letter change. . . . I know that we can do it."
Davis did not worry that the grading criteria will change again for 2012-13, including such things as geometry and biology end of course exams, increasing the passing score for FCAT writing and bringing back the penalty for inadequate gains among the lowest performing students.
"If I got concerned every year with the changes the state made, I'd never sleep," she said. "I focus on student achievement and what's good for kids."
Florida began using factors beyond FCAT scores to grade high schools in 2009-10. Lawmakers responded to arguments that the schools' performance could be more accurately evaluated if based on a variety of outcomes, and not a single measure.
Added to the mix were participation and performance on advanced placement and other accelerated exams, the school's four- and five-year graduation rates, its at-risk student graduation rate and college readiness rates on one of several college entrance exams.
The reliance on extra data is what has pushed back the release of high school grades into the winter, whereas elementary and middle schools have received their state grades in the summer.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or @jeffsolochek on Twitter. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.