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FCAT ALONE WON'T BRAND A HIGH SCHOOL

The state alters the formula it uses to grade schools. Principals like it, no matter the outcome.

As if Pinellas County high schools didn't have it hardenough.

Eight of 17 earned D's and one earned an F last year under the state's FCAT-based grading formula. Now they face a new formula that's far more complicated.

Beginning this year, a long list of other factors will be weighed, including graduation rates, participation in college-caliber Advanced Placement exams, and the number of students earning industry certifications.

That means high schools will have to focus on a slew of academic markers, not just one.

Yet that's the way many principals want it.

"It brings to the forefront that we need to pay attention to not just the FCAT," said Largo principal Marjorie Sundstrom. "What it does is basically say, 'Let's refocus. Let's look at what we do in these other areas.' "

State lawmakers changed the formula in 2008 after years of complaints. Schools' grades shouldn't be based on FCAT scores alone, critics said. There was also a widespread assumption that including other factors would result in better grades for high schools, which have fared much worse than middle and elementary schools.

It remains to be seen what effect the new formula will have on grades, but it may not be as bad as initially feared.

The state Department of Education stoked anxiety statewide in December with a simulation using 2007 data. It showed that a third of the state's high schools would have dropped a letter grade. Six of 17 Pinellas high schools would have tumbled, including Dixie Hollins, from a D to an F. No Pinellas high schools would have improved a grade.

Since then, the DOE has tweaked the formula. In a second simulation using 2008 data, the number of A schools statewide remained the same, the number of B's dropped slightly, and the number of C's, D's and F's increased slightly.

In Pinellas, two schools would have moved up a grade, two would have slid a grade and the rest would have stayed the same.

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Pinellas officials say the formula won't cause them to radically change what they're doing.

The district is already paying more attention to things like graduation rates and participation in AP courses. Grad rates climbed an impressive 7 percentage points last year. AP participation and passage rates have shown steady, double-digit growth.

"It's consistent with what we've been trying to do," said Pinellas Park High principal John Johnston.

"In many ways (the new grading formula) is a validation of the way we've been going," said Rita Vasquez, the district's director of high school education. "Now the state is going to help us be accountable in those areas."

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Many supporters of the new formula are particularly happy that it includes measures tied to career and technical education.

In the past three years, students at Boca Ciega High have earned 87 certified nursing assistant licenses. Students in the school's Microsoft Academy have also earned a number of industry certifications. Those accomplishments will now count as points toward the school grade.

With the new grading formula "we're watching very carefully the areas we need to excel in ... to make sure we're not only meeting these requirements but doing the right things for kids," said Boca Ciega principal Paula Nelson.

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Support for the new formula doesn't mean district officials are naive about the work ahead.

Many expect schools that have struggled to continue to. Most schools with poor FCAT scores also have poor graduation rates and performance on college entrance exams.

They also face the challenge of focusing on more academic factors in a time of shrinking school budgets.

Tarpon Springs High, for example, has had a lot of success boosting its AP rolls, from fewer than 100 students four years ago to more than 300 last year. But the state knocked it down a letter grade last year - to a D - because it fell just shy of making enough progress with its most struggling students.

Many of those students are chronically absent, and it's going to take a special effort to reach them, said Tarpon Springs principal Kent Vermeer.

"There's a lot of positive things (in the new formula) to focus on, and they're all important," Vermeer said. "But the difficulty is how do you get enough resources ... to focus on all of them?"

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

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How schools might fare under the new system
A simulation by the state Department of Education shows how the state's new grading formula would have affected the points and grades of Pinellas high schools. The simulation was based on 2008 data.
School Grade* Point total Simulated grade** Simulated point total
Boca Ciega D 404 D 879
Clearwater C 472 C 934
Countryside C 488 C 985
Dixie Hollins D 431 D 869
Dunedin C 493 C 963
Gibbs D 405 D 881
Lakewood D 488 C 997
Largo C 463 C 926
Northeast D 417 D 822
Osceola B 504 C 970
Pinellas Park C 458 C 938
St. Petersburg B 537 B 1174
Seminole B 510 B 1095
Tarpon Springs D 494 C 1047
Palm Harbor University A 618 A 1315
East Lake A 577 B 1145
St. Petersburg Collegiate A 684 A 1383
* The old grading system used an 800-point scale. A: 525-800. B: 495-524. C: 435-494. D: 395-434. F: less than 395. Some schools were penalized a letter grade because they did not see enough improvement in lowest-performing students. That penalty is not reflected in the point total.
** New system has a 1,600-point scale. A: 1,050-1,600. B: 990-1,049. C: 870-989. D: 790-869. F: less than 790. Some schools were penalized a letter grade because of the existing FCAT penalty. A new penalty tied to the graduation rate of at-risk students kept others from earning an A.
Source: Florida Department of Education

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The new grading formula for high schools

High school grades were based on FCAT scores alone. Now 50 percent of the grade will hinge on the FCAT. Among the additional factors:

- The school's graduation rate

- Graduation rate of at-risk students (defined as students who scored below grade level on both the FCAT reading and math portions in eighth grade)

- Participation and performance of students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs

- Participation and performance of students in dual-enrollment programs

- Participation and performance of students in career and technical programs that can result in industry certification

- Performance of students on the SAT and/or ACT college entrance exams

- School improvement in each of these categories

- Schools cannot earn an A unless a certain percentage of at-risk students graduate. (The recommended threshold is 75 percent, or at least a 5 percent improvement over the prior year.)

Source: Florida Department of Education

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