LAND O'LAKES — The latest round of state testing results, released last Friday, sent Pasco County school leaders wading into data reports to figure out exactly what the outcome meant.
Generally speaking, district students had higher passing rates than the state overall, with many grade levels showing improvement. But the interest ran much deeper than simply looking at passing rates.
Several principals focused on figuring out what their school grades might look like in July. Struggling schools such as Lacoochee and Hudson elementaries and Fivay High face major overhauls if their marks don't rise.
And changes to the state's school grading system this year have many officials, at the local and state level, raising concerns that the 2013 grades won't reflect the improvement that many schools and students have seen.
Lacoochee, for instance, saw its fifth-grade FCAT passing rate on the three tests — reading, math and science — rise by a combined 82 points. But its fourth-graders' proficiency in writing dropped significantly, particularly when taking into account the state's decision to increase the passing score from 3.0 last year to 3.5 this year.
Under the 2012 standard, Lacoochee had 92 percent of students considered passing. This year, 26 percent of Lacoochee fourth-graders met the mark, a 66-point drop.
"Lower school performance grades will not be the result of lower student performance, but will be caused by changes the state has made, yet again, to the School Performance Grading formula," Wally Cox, president of the Florida superintendents association, wrote last week to the State Board of Education. "The ever-changing nature of the School Performance Grading formula and its resulting outcomes continue to confuse the public and further erode trust in the state's accountability system."
The association asked for some relief from the state, at least for the short term. State Board vice chairman John Padget, for one, did not sound flexible on the issue.
"Fortunately, Florida continues to raise the bar for students and schools. The impacts of the revised school grading formula were well-known and fully discussed in the weeks and months before the new rule was adopted by the state board on Feb. 28, 2012," Padget said via email. "Some schools and districts may not have improved enough to reach the higher bar and maintain their prior grade. So be it."
Still the concerns remained.
Cotee River Elementary School's proficiency rates increased in just about all grade levels on all portions of the exam. Even among high performing students, principal Lou Cerreta said, the school saw academic gains at higher levels than the year before.
But its writing performance threatened to tamp down Cotee River's grade, too.
"The changing of the scoring criteria in writing hurts us," said Cerreta, who projected a C grade for his school. "That's sad, because it takes away from the gains we had."
The State Board of Education also ended its suspension of the rule that lowered a school's grade by one letter if it didn't get gains from at least half of the lowest performing quarter of students. And unlike past years, the board applied that rule to math results, and not just reading scores.
That has Calusa Elementary principal Kara Merlin concerned her school might receive a second straight D, even as students' passing rates showed strong improvement, particularly in third and fifth grades.
"We celebrate those small wins," Merlin said. "But then we dig deeper."
That means taking a closer look at the practices that teachers used to better student performance, as well as those that were ineffective. Many principals said that giving teams of teachers more time to collaborate generated the improvements that they did get.
Cerreta spoke of using a literacy team, for instance, to help teachers monitor student progress in reading, while pushing more independent reading time for children. Merlin said the joint planning time gave teachers insights into best practices, and the next step is improving lesson execution in the classrooms.
"One of the pieces we're still working on with our teams ... is giving them coverage so they can watch each other," she said. "It sounds simplistic, I guess. But it's really important. Internships are short. We don't always get to see others teaching."
They're open to any ideas to improving proficiency, and not just making gains. Many schools have already begun bringing teams of teacher leaders back to campus to plan for the coming year.
Tom Barker, principal of Crews Lake Middle, said he's planning to make adjustments to the school staffing and teacher training as a result of the recent FCAT and end-of-course exam scores. He also has to assess how to deal with the numbers from Shady Hills Elementary, which is merging with Crews Lake for the next couple of years during a construction project.
Dealing with the details and determining next steps leave little time to worry about the state grades, which Barker called a "public relations piece."
"I don't want to put too much emphasis on the school grade. We acknowledge it and then we move on," he said. "Breaking it down to look at the different strands, that's more meaningful than the school grade."
Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said the district administration will support the schools in their attempts to delve through their data.
"Data is not where it ends," Larson said. "Data is where it starts."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.