As Florida released high school letter grades Tuesday, educators and students celebrated throughout Tampa Bay. Pinellas County went from having no A high schools last year to seven. Hillsborough went from two A high schools to eight, and Pasco went from none to two.
Yet, a change in how schools were graded this year makes year-to-year comparisons almost futile. Only half of a high school's grade was based on the old formula, which focused almost exclusively on FCAT scores. So a school may have improved or it may have worsened, but its change in letter grade this year is no sure indication of either.
For example, Largo High still earned a D, even though its performance on FCAT-related measures actually improved. Conversely, St. Petersburg's Gibbs High, the only F-rated high school in Pinellas last year, moved up to a C even though its number under the old measures stayed virtually the same.
The new grading system is a significant improvement on the old. In addition to FCAT scores, high schools are now measured by how many students they prepare for college by providing access to accelerated coursework such as International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses. The state also grades their graduation rates, giving extra weight to the percentage of at-risk students who earn a diploma.
In short, the state Department of Education is now measuring high schools in a different and better way, one that rewards high schools for encouraging high achievement in their students as well as basic competence.
The flaw in the new formula is that schools' grades are weighted simply for providing access to Advanced Placement and similar classes, rather than measuring how well students do in the class. That will change in coming years, as the state is expected to revise the formula to give equal weight to students' performance in those classes. That trend is in the right direction, but it needs to go further and give greater weight to success than to mere access. Providing access without demonstrating success is no formula for achievement.
So high schools celebrating this year's high grades can't rest. The measures will change again — less drastically, but for the better — as the state begins to grade on a tougher curve and becomes more stringent on how graduation rates are counted.
In order to earn a good grade next year, a high school will need to exceed its performance this year. It will need to have students not only taking higher-level classes but have more of them demonstrating that they know the material. There will be no easy A's next year.