State education officials released an encouraging report Thursday on public school grades and took the opportunity to tout Florida’s decision to reopen school doors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers — which are still being compiled for some schools — present the most complete look at efforts to try to reverse learning losses from the early months of 2020, when schools were closed at the start of the pandemic. And they are the last that will be released under the Florida Standards system, which is being replaced this year with Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, or B.E.S.T.
Statewide, the biggest gains were seen in elementary schools, where 1 in 5 schools improved by at least one letter grade, the Department of Education reported.
Fifty-three schools that had been targeted for improvement were removed from the support list as a result of this year’s test scores. Every school that had an F grade in 2019 — the last testing year before the pandemic — was able to raise its grade.
“It’s clear that our teachers and school leaders used every resource at their disposal to lift Florida’s students well beyond expectations,” Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said in a statement.
“We know that these results are thanks to policies that kept schools open and kept kids in the classroom, which has been widely recognized as critical to student achievement.”
That’s not to say there was no deterioration at certain schools.
There were six new district-run F schools in the Tampa Bay area: Chasco, Gulf Highlands, Fox Hollow and West Zephyrhills elementary schools in Pasco; Tyrone Middle in Pinellas; and Just Elementary in Tampa.
The Hillsborough County School District, which has struggled in recent years with large numbers of persistently poor-performing schools, saw nine of its 13 D schools improve to C’s or better. The district’s lone former F school, James Elementary, now has a C. Grades remained unchanged at three of the D schools. Data was incomplete for the D-rated Giunta Middle School.
Outside that group of 14, there were eight schools that dropped to D status.
Overall, Superintendent Addison Davis said he was thrilled with the progress his staff and students have made. He is looking forward to more reports from the state that should show Hillsborough has improved its state ranking — and drastically reduced the number of schools on the state’s poor-performing list.
“I’m ecstatic about our progress,” Davis said. “We will have more work to do, but one thing’s for certain: Employees of Hillsborough County always show up, and I’m proud of them.”
Davis said the improvement in Hillsborough was the result of several factors: his own staff’s efforts, state guidance and federal funding to address the COVID-19 learning loss. “All of that, inclusive, allowed us to be successful,” he said.
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Pinellas school district leaders calculated that 74% of their schools maintained or improved their grades since the 2018-19 school year. The district also saw 93% of its schools earn a grade of A, B or C, and 57% earned an A or a B.
“I am incredibly proud of the progress of our schools, teachers and administrators,” Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said. “We are well on our way to becoming an A district. It is through the commitment and collaboration of our students, families, staff and community that we will continue to accelerate our progress.”
School leaders noted that improvement happened despite numerous difficulties. These include a nationwide teacher shortage, mental health struggles and student behavior problems during the pandemic.
“I’m pleased to see what our schools have accomplished, especially considering the challenges of the past two years,” said Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning. More than half of all Pasco schools earned A and B grades, and 85% earned an A, B or C grade.
“All credit goes to the students, their teachers and all the administrators who have worked so hard,” Browning said. “Now that we have the test scores and school grades, our teachers and administrators are laser-focused on the data and planning for greater accomplishments next year.”
It will be a year of adjustment, with numerous changes accompanying the state’s introduction of B.E.S.T. Tests will be given numerous times during the school year instead of just once, in a system known as “progress monitoring.”
And while schools will continue to receive grades, 2022-23 will be considered a baseline year so that, for subsequent years, they can receive credit for student improvement in addition to competency.
Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.