The number of Florida high schools earning A grades from the state in 2011-12 rose by nearly a third, from 148 to 231, the Florida Department of Education reports.
The results can be attributed partially to some buffers in the grading system that the state put in place as it also increased FCAT passing scores, changed the graduation rate formula and took other steps to toughen accountability measures.
To protect against major grade fluctuations, the Florida Board of Education lowered the passing mark on writing to 3 from 4. It also decided that for 2011-12 only, no school could lose more than one letter grade. And it set aside the rule from past years that schools would lose a grade if at least half of students in the lowest 25 percent did not make gains.
"This year's results reflect both higher standards and temporary safeguards the State Board of Education approved to help smooth the transition. As we continue toward implementing Common Core State Standards and assessments, we will continue to raise the bar as we prepare our students for success beyond high school," interim commissioner Pam Stewart said in a release.
Pinellas high schools earned nine A's, four Bs, and three Cs, compared to two As, 12 Bs, and two Cs a year earlier. In Hillsborough, 13 of the district's 27 traditional high schools earned A's, and 10 others earned Bs.
Two Pasco County high schools — Land O'Lakes and Zephryhills — saw their school grades improve for 2011-12, and seven schools kept their grades steady, despite a new state grading formula that many superintendents said would drive the marks lower. Just four county schools saw their grades drop.
Two Hernando high schools saw their grades rise to A, while the two others remained at B.
The state also started grading ESE centers as standalone entities, something that caused major complaints among districts — particularly Hillsborough and Miami-Dade. The state did so to earn a No Child Left Behind waiver, which required accounting for all students. Districts did not want to count the students as attending home schools they do not go to, so some decided to accept the center grades while fighting the concept.
Ten such schools got Fs including three in Hillsborough. Sixteen were too small for grades, and 72 chose to accept a school improvement rating instead as an alternative school.
Florida began using factors beyond FCAT scores to grade the high schools in 2009-10. Lawmakers responded to arguments that the schools' performances 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, while elementary and middle schools had received their state grades in the summer.
The state is moving ahead with school recognition funding based on the grades. The money should be distributed in the first months of next year, after high school appeals are completed, Stewart said.