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Despite gripes, schools pitch in

Published Jun. 20, 2004|Updated Aug. 28, 2005

When the standardized test scores at Buchanan Middle School fell from an A to a B last year and dropped again to a C this year, maybe that reflected a less effective school. Or maybe it was because some of Buchanan's best test-takers were shifted en masse to the new Liberty Middle School.

Maybe Martinez Middle School has the highest scores in Hillsborough County because of brilliant work. Or maybe it's because the student body is drawn almost exclusively from affluent, educated parents.

A school's collective grade from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test can inflate morale across an entire campus _ or puncture it _ from the youngest students to the senior administrators. But what does it really show?

"The FCAT system as it sits is a good instrument to use as far as assessing students' reading ability, writing ability and math ability," said principal Daniel Bonilla of Leto High School. "But it doesn't tell you how effective the school is."

Admittedly, Bonilla is frustrated. For the third consecutive year, Leto received a D grade.

If not for a handful of the school's weakest students, Leto would have been a C school this year. It had the 320 points required for a C. But Leto also needed 50 percent of its lowest performers to make a year's worth of academic gains. Only 44 percent did.

So instead of basking in the glory of improvement, Leto was one of four high schools in the county to score so low.

"I don't give any credence to the scores whatsoever," said Faye Pages, retiring principal of Lake Magdalene Elementary School, despite the fact that Lake Magdalene just reclaimed its status as an A school.

Sickles High School lost its A the way Leto lost its B.

"When you've been an A school for two years in a row and you get a B, you're not good enough," said Nuri Ayres, Sickles' principal. "Once you've been the best, you want to stay there."

It almost did. Sickles had 412 points, more than enough to be an A school.

"What hurt us was that bottom quartile," Ayres said. Only 48 percent of Sickles' lowest-performing students showed a year of improvement. Fifty percent was required for the A.

Last year, Lake Magdalene also scored high enough for an A, but received a B.

The snag in Lake Magdalene's case was a rule that the bottom quartile of a school's test-takers couldn't average more than 10 percentage points lower than the overall school. Since then, the school shrank that gap by hiring extra teachers who focused on the lower performers, Pages said.

"They worked so hard with every child," she said.

Meanwhile, the state dropped the rule.

"Behind the eight ball'

One of the most constant traits over five years of grading local schools is that schools in the upscale suburbs get the highest grades.

"There are some low-income students who do very well, and there are some high-income students who don't do well," said Pages, the Lake Magdalene principal. "But those are the exceptions."

That means schools populated from low-income households have tended to post lower test scores.

This is easily measured, because such children qualify for free or subsidized lunches.

Among 29 elementary schools north of Tampa, the 17 with the lowest percentage of low-income students all received A's last week. The seven with the highest percentage of low-income students all received B's or C's.

Martinez Middle, a 2-year-old school off Lutz-Lake Fern Road, had the lowest percentage of low-income students among all Hillsborough middle schools, and also had the highest points total toward its A.

The school's next-door neighbor, McKitrick Elementary, was second only to Bevis Elementary, in south Hillsborough's new FishHawk development, in FCAT points. Those two schools also had the fewest low-income students among Hillsborough's 118 elementary schools.

Dickenson Elementary School, among the school district's creme de la creme, dropped from an A in 2003 to a C this year.

"We had a change in our boundary which gave us another 100 students from somewhere else," said Cheryl Holley, principal of the Town 'N Country school, where 55 percent of the students are low-income.

"It's not that this school has changed," she said. "We did the exact same thing."

More than 100 temporary transplants came to Dickenson from central Tampa's Lockhart Elementary, which is 73 percent low-income. Fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms swelled. Classes that averaged 25 students in 2003 had 34 students this year.

"They can't help that they came here," she said. "We did the best that we could."

Next year, the students who were reassigned to Dickenson will attend the new Davis Elementary School on Memorial Highway.

But even though they will be gone, Dickenson learned that perhaps it needs to change the way it educates students. There will be more collaboration and more dialogue among teachers so that all students, including those that struggle, thrive, Holley said.

"The governor has said that it is (a C school), but it's not," she said. "That's not acceptable to us. It will be an A school again next school year, and parents have nothing to fear."

Lockhart, meanwhile, scored a B.

In Carrollwood, Adams Middle School dropped to a B despite "writing camps" the school organized to help eighth-graders prepare for the FCAT. The school is 51 percent low-income.

"You have your ebb and flow as your kids flow through here," said principal Mike Hoskinson. "You wonder how the abilities changed."

But Hoskinson said that's no excuse. The FCAT points system emphasizes progress of the school's weakest students.

"You're behind the eight ball with them, but you can still make gains," he said. "You can make that kid grow just as much."

Vital indicators

Hoskinson and other principals interviewed by the Times were uniformly positive about improving. "We're going to make an A next year," he said.

Ayres, at Sickles, already is planning changes with the opening day 1{ months away. She is full of ideas: Pairing students with mentors. Checking in with teachers more often. One-on-one student conferences.

She wonders, "Now that we're not an A, what do we do to make sure we get that feeling again?"

Yet there's plenty of dissent about the impact of the testing.

Leto's Bonilla said a school would be better judged by what he called vital indicators _ scholarships, grade point averages, attendance.

When Bonilla started as principal in 1998, graduating seniors received $250,000 in college scholarships, freshmen had a cumulative GPA of 1.35 and attendance was 87.5 percent. Today, Leto seniors average $1.9-million in scholarships, freshmen cumulative GPAs are inching closer to 2.0 and the school's attendance rate is 93 percent.

"More kids are coming to school, more kids are performing," Bonilla said. "The FCAT doesn't measure these things. It just measures how they do on that test on that day."

However, he said "there's a reality. Our children are going to have to perform on the FCAT. And they will."

Pages, the Lake Magdalene principal, called it "a very unfair grading system."

Upon retiring, she spread the word through her faculty: "Keep doing what you've always done," she said. "Care for every student, and teach just as hard as you can."

A principal for the past 16 years, Pages remembers fondly when Lake Magdalene had more field trips and carved out periods in which children read outdoors. Now they prepare for testing.

Pages would like for Florida to take the money spent on preparing for tests, administering tests and processing the results, and instead focus it on the problems of preschool-age children.

"If you put it toward early intervention, you'd see more progress than anything else," she said.

_ Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coatssptimes.com. Rodney Thrash can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or rthrashsptimes.com.

School grades and money

Schools with the most affluent students tend to score higher on standardized tests. Here's a ranking of elementary schools' poverty levels in the North of Tampa area, and the grades they got from the state.

Elementary Poverty 2004

schools percentage grade

McKitrick 11% A

Westchase 17 A

Hunter's Green 20 A

Lutz 20 A

Clark 23 A

Pride 25 A

Northwest 25 A

Schwarzkopf 32 A

Claywell 32 A

Carrollwood 33 A

Chiles 33 A

Lake Magdalene 34 A

Essrig 36 A

Citrus Park 36 A

Lowry 37 A

Tampa Palms 37 A

Maniscalco 38 A

Heritage 47 C

Morgan Woods 56 B

Bay Crest 58 A

Cannella 59 A

Bellamy 67 A

Woodbridge 70 C

Dickenson 71 C

Pizzo 75 B

Town & Country 83 B

Witter 90 C

Mort 94 C

Shaw 96 C

Note: Poverty level is based on percentage of students who were getting free or reduced-price lunches at the end of this past school year because they're in low-income families.

Sources: Hillsborough County schools, state Department of Education

Area FCAT grades

Listed below are the grades for schools in northern Hillsborough County for each year the FCAT has been given.

_ School did not receive a grade

Progress

under

"No

Child'

'04 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999

ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS

Bay Crest Yes A A B C C C

Bellamy No A A A C A C

Cannella Yes A A A C B B

Carrollwood No A A A B C B

Chiles No A A

Clark Yes A A A B B B

Claywell No A A A A A A

Dickenson No C A B A C C

Essrig Yes A A B A A C

Forest Hills No B B B C C C

Heritage No C _

Hunters Green No A A A A A C

Lake Magdalene No A B B A A C

Lowry Yes A A A A C C

Lutz Yes A A A A B B

Maniscalco No A A A B C C

McKitrick Yes A A

Morgan Woods No B A C B A C

Mort No C C D D D D

Northwest Yes A A A A A C

Pizzo Yes B A C C C D

Pride No A A A _

Schwarzkopf Yes A A A C A B

Shaw No C D F D D D

Tampa Palms Yes A A A A A B

Town & Country No B B B C C C

Westchase Yes A A A A A B

Witter No C C C C C D

Woodbridge No C C B B C C

MIDDLE SCHOOLS

Adams No B A A A C C

Benito No A A A B A B

Buchanan No C B A A C C

Davidsen No B A A _

Farnell No A _

Hill No A A A A C C

Liberty No A _

Martinez Yes A _

Pierce No C B B C C C

Walker Yes A A A A B C

Webb No C B C C C C

HIGH SCHOOLS

Alonso No B C _

Chamberlain No C C C C C C

Freedom No B _

Gaither No B A B C C C

Jefferson No C C C C D C

Leto No D D D C C C

Sickles No B A A C C C

Wharton No C C C C C C

COMBINATION SCHOOLS

Roland Park No B _ B C C C

Terrace Comm. Cht. Yes A A A B

Learning Gate Cht. Yes A A _

Source: Florida Department of Education

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