Florida's high schools earned dismal grades from the state last week. The number of D high schools climbed from 70 to 116, and the trend was even worse in the Tampa Bay area, where D was the most common grade. Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg dropped to an F, a first for a Pinellas secondary school. It will take time to sort out the reasons for the precipitous decline and develop plans to address it. But the grades should get the attention of community leaders and parents as well as teachers, who cannot raise student performance levels alone.
When high schools fare poorly on the FCAT's simplistic grading formula, it is tempting to write off the entire student enrollment. But when Florida grades its high schools, it is really adding up the performances of the individual students at that school. So in that sense, it's the students, not the school, who are failing to improve. This year, it appears that particularly those students in the lowest 25 percent did not improve enough to keep school grades from falling.
Schools have their share of responsibility, of course, for student performance. But so do parents and the students themselves. Falling school grades should be a catalyst for a candid assessment of the shortcomings and how to address them.
A school's grade will not improve unless students' individual scores go up first. Schools have a great deal of work ahead of them, and budget cuts make that task harder. The schools need more reading coaches to help struggling students, particularly in Pinellas, where the district has cut reading coaches to save money. But parents and the larger community need to examine their commitment to student achievement as well.
Schools need to form more meaningful partnerships with their communities and the families of their students. A student is in school barely six hours a day. What happens during those other hours of the day matters at least as much.
The performance of high schools across the state and the nation already was an issue before last week's FCAT grades. There is no one answer to improving student performance. In Florida, academic standards are being raised, more students are being steered toward Advanced Placement classes and there is a renewed emphasis on vocational education. The FCAT scores bring some urgency to continue to experiment to find ways to make high school more relevant to students in a world of instant messaging and Facebook.
Florida is part of a national cooperative that is working toward national graduation standards. Next month, the group is supposed to propose tough, internationally competitive math and reading standards for high school graduates. If all goes as planned, students will have to meet these harder requirements for a high school diploma. But higher standards are only part of the solution. As the FCAT scores reflect, there are is going to have to be a higher commitment among school officials and families as well to prepare students for a world that is more competitive than ever.