To the delight of parents and administrators, Blanton Elementary in Pinellas County vaulted from a D grade to an A after this year's FCAT.
Yet two of every five students at Blanton still aren't reading at their grade level. Half aren't meeting standards in math. But because nearly three-quarters of the students showed improvement, Blanton is an A school.
To the confusion of parents who rely on the school's grade to determine its quality, an A school can mean different things in Florida. It can be a school where many students get high marks on standardized tests, or it can be a school like Blanton, where the scores are improving but still relatively low.
The FCAT, once viewed by detractors as a grading system designed to stigmatize public schools as failures and award tuition vouchers to students for private schools, now appears to be plagued by grade inflation.
A Times computer-assisted analysis of this year's FCAT results found:
+ Nearly half of all Florida schools, 1,229, are now A schools. That total is higher than the combined number of B and C schools. There are 508 percent more A schools than in 1999, when the current grading system started.
+ If FCAT scores were based only on achievement and graded like classroom work _ 90 to 100 percent for an A, 80 to 89 percent for a B and so on _ there would be 77 A schools instead of 1,229.
+ Of Florida's nearly 2,600 public schools, 888 relied more on improving test scores than on high test scores to get their grade.
+ Ten schools were awarded A's even though most of their students scored below reading standards. A dozen other schools received A's even though more than half of their students scored below standards in math.
The FCAT grading system rewards both high-performing schools and schools where students are making progress. If just 54 percent of all students perform at grade level and at least 54 percent improve their test scores, the school is nearly guaranteed a C.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who made the FCAT grading system one of the cornerstones of his administration, said he is pleased with school improvement but indicated changes may be coming to address the record number of A schools.
"The answer to the high number of A schools is to consider raising the bar a bit," he wrote in a e-mail response to questions about the Times' analysis. "This is under consideration, and we will seek input from many before we decide what to do."
The record number of A schools, including some with mediocre achievement scores, has given critics another reason to dislike the FCAT.
"Anything that is counterintuitive like that _ that is distinctly absurd _ needs to be changed," said W. James Popham, a school testing expert and author of The Truth About Testing.
Getting an A
How school grades are tallied is not a state secret.
Florida's school grades are compiled from six categories. Three are achievement based and three are improvement based.
Half of the possible 600 points come from achievement. The other half come from learning gains, or from students raising their test scores. State officials can drop schools a grade if the bottom 25 percent of students don't show enough improvement.
As a result of the formula, schools with low scores rely far more on learning gains to gethigher grades than schools that have a large number of high-achieving students.
For example, Doral Academy Charter in Miami-Dade County received an A even though 61 percent of its students scored below their grade level in reading.
Edison Park Elementary School in Miami-Dade County received a C, yet 70 percent of its students can't read at grade level. Nearly 80 percent are below grade level in math. Improvements in student scores, though, accounted for 65 percent of Edison's grade.
"The system is designed to work that way," said Greg Forster, a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. "It's not a failure of the system. It's the system working the way it's designed."
A lot of A grades isn't a bad thing, he said.
"It depends on what you mean by best schools," Forster said. "There's more than one way to measure achievement."
That can lead to uncertainty about what letter grades for schools mean.
"I'm not sure anyone really knows," Pasco County Schools Superintendent John Long said.
Sue Flaig, a veteran Realtor in Clearwater, said when a prospective home buyer asks her about schools and what their grades are, she points them elsewhere. She fears being sued if she gives parents the wrong impression of a school.
"What do you think of when you get an A? You got the best," she said.
And what does an A mean?
"I have no idea, quite honestly," she said.
The Pinellas school district tells schools not to use school grades to attract students or to market their school, said Ron Stone, a Pinellas schools spokesman.
"We don't put a lot of creedence into the grading of schools," Stone said. "A school is a whole lot more than a grade.
"It's difficult for anyone to make sense of. We've all grown up to have A's and B's and C's in our mind. We've been raised to think an A is better than a C."
Improved scores and poor schools
Long, the Pasco superintendent, believes student improvement should be the only score that counts toward a school's grade.
"I would not be upset because my school got an A because of a significant gains score," he said. "As an educator, I think that is a significant measure of a school."
"Is that an A in common use that you and I got in school? No it's not."
Bush said the learning gains were included at the request of many educators and administrators, who believe learning gains are a fairer way to evaluate schools.
"I believe (the current FCAT structure) is a good mix," Bush told the Times. "It doesn't penalize the high performing schools and it recognizes, because of years of neglect, many students need to accelerate their learning and schools should be rewarded for that result."
Often, those schools that have been neglected for years are in poor neighborhoods. Poverty, perhaps more than any other single element, explains the difference in scores between one school and another, a Times analysis of state data shows. That reflects the findings of other state and national research.
For better or worse, the FCAT grading system minimizes the effect of poverty on a school's performance on standardized tests. Using statistical analysis tools, the impact of poverty on a school's score appears smaller if the grading system reflects improvement rather than only pure achievement.
For example, schools where more than 90 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunches got an average 54 percent of their FCAT grade from the learning gains categories. A minority of their grade came from achievement. Their average score, out of 600 possible points, was 338. That's a low C on the state's scale.
Schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches got an average 46 percent of their grade from the learning gain categories. A majority of their grade came from achievement. Their average score, out of 600 possible, was 468. That's a solid A grade.
"The school can't control that poor kids are poor," said Forster. "It's not a perfect system. It's a better system."
In 2003, the average school reported 65 percent of its students improved reading scores and 70 percent improved math scores. But the average school also reported that four of every 10 students can't read or do math at their grade level.
"I'd be extremely suspicious of the reason that you are witnessing an apparent cavalcade of vastly improved schools," said Popham, the testing expert. "What you really need to find out, of course, is how the teachers are actually tackling this score-raising challenge.
"Absent such evidence, I think that the governor and his crew are likely to create an FCAT-fantasy world in which illegitimate score gains have been bought at the cost of lowered instructional quality."
Jade Moore, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said the FCAT grades have more to do with politics than educational outcomes. He said politicians can claim schools are improving while not significantly increasing spending on public education.
"It's only going to keep getting worse unless we (change the standard)," Moore said. "We've figured out that test."
Forster agreed that the FCAT will need to be adjusted if the number of A grades keeps rising.
"At some time, it will be time to move the scale," Forster said. "However, you have to balance that with the desire to keep standards the same so the goal posts aren't moving.
"Everybody will be in the A category if we don't move the bar at some point."
Forster, however, said now may not be the right time to make adjustments. National education testing results indicate Florida's test scores are improving, but the state still ranks low compared to most other states.
"When you're on the bottom of the nation," Forster said, "it may not be time yet to move the standard up."
The Times averaged three test scores to determine the percentage of students working at grade level or better in each school.
A schools in Florida 1,229
A schools with 95% 4
A schools with 90% 77
A schools with 85% 270
A schools with 80% 546
A schools below 80% 683
Sources: Florida Department of Education
In 2003, there was an explosion of A graded schools in Florida. But notions that A schools have the highest achieving students are often dead wrong. The Times took achievement scores out of the FCAT grading system, averaged them, and put them against a standard school grading scale, where 90 to 100 is an A, 80 to 90 is a B and so on. Below is the distribution of grades for schools under the FCAT system, and under the Times' achievement scale.
Grades Times achievement FCAT grading
A 77 1,229
B 469 568
C 734 527
D 713 141
F 600 35
A tale of two A schools
Hawks Rise Elementary School in Tallahassee and Doral Academy Charter in Miami both got A grades this year, but they earned them in very different ways. Almost every student at Hawks Rise scored at grade level or above on the FCAT test. A majority of the students at Doral scored below grade level on reading, and 40 percent scored low on math. But since a large number of Doral students showed improvement from last year, the school got the same A grade as Hawks Rise.
Harks Rise Elementary, 292 225
Leon County School
Doral Academy Charter, 197 225
Making the grade
How a low scoring A school, Bunnell Elementary in Flagler County, attained its 2003 A ranking after getting a C in 2002.
Total on a 600-point scale: 417
Percent reaching standards
Percent improving scores
Improved reading 68%
Improved math 81%
Lowest 25 percent 86%
Source: Florida Department of Education