Florida's grades for public high schools are finally out this week and generating plenty of attention. But there is a lot more to school quality than the letter grade issued by the state. In this season of shopping for schools for the 2012-13 school year, parents and students would do well to look beyond the blunt instrument of a school's grade to more specific and meaningful indicators of achievement.
In fact, the school grade, particularly for high schools, may give a false sense of a school's actual success. Rather than relying on a school grade as a benchmark, it's far better to drill down into the actual numbers on graduation rates, FCAT and Advanced Placement test results and the like that make up the letter grade. Those are all available at the Florida Department of Education's website. In addition, because the rules are changing from year to year, the same performance by a school may well yield different grades last year, this year and next year.
The pitfall of looking just at grades is illustrated by the example of St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School. It has laudably risen from an F to B in three years because of myriad changes at the school that re-focused everyone on student achievement. Indeed, it would be easy for a casual observer to believe that a B school no longer has serious performance issues. Yet peel back a few layers of test results, and the raw statistics show that among non-magnet students last year at Gibbs, fewer than one in 10 were reading at or above grade level. That should remain cause for alarm and action, B school or no.
Pinellas superintendent John Stewart correctly perceives that the public puts great stock in school grades even as he understands that it is the various statistics behind the grade, not the grade itself, that really matter. To that end, he notes the need to improve stagnant high school reading scores, which actually are a measure of student achievement. Get students reading earlier and more proficiently, and the letter grades are more likely to take care of themselves.
For better or worse, Florida has adopted the simplistic shorthand of school letter grades to draw attention to student performance. But parents and students should keep those grades in perspective. There are other more specific measures that reveal far more about how well each school is educating its students.