The number of Florida high schools earning an A in the last academic year fell by 25 percent as the state again changed its grading criteria.
The state's graduation rate, meanwhile, inched up to 76.1 percent, an 11-year high, the Florida Department of Education reported Thursday. Pasco County had the Tampa Bay region's highest graduation rate, at 79.4 percent, while Pinellas County had the greatest rise, 4.3 percentage points.
Hillsborough's rate dropped to 73.5 percent and was the lowest among the state's large counties.
In a conference call, state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart focused on how students continued to perform well despite increased expectations. Schools had to earn more points to make each grade, as the law required after more than 75 percent of high schools got A's or B's in 2013.
"Even with the higher bar, 55 (of 520) schools improved their letter grade," Stewart noted. "There is a lot to celebrate."
Only five area schools saw their grades rise — Central High in Hernando, Plant High and Pivot Charter in Hillsborough, and Fivay and Land O'Lakes in Pasco.
Most did not experience any change. Schools that earned A's or boosted their grade will get extra state money.
The results came halfway into the new school year. So while school leaders took the time to check them out, some questioned the report's value at this late date.
"We can't wait for this grade to make adjustments," said Robyn White, principal of Wiregrass Ranch High in Pasco. She said much of the data come out earlier, and schools use the information to plan over the summer.
Stewart acknowledged the disconnect, and said she aimed to report high school grades earlier next year.
Other changes also are afoot for 2015 as state officials attempt to right an education accountability system beset by changing rules. Lawmakers agreed last spring to simplify the system.
At the same time, the state is adopting new academic standards and tests. So it will use next year's results as a benchmark, not to penalize schools.
Many school boards, superintendents, and teacher and parent groups are pushing for an even longer transition. Lawmakers say they will consider reducing tests, but show little willingness to eliminate tests or school grades as some have demanded.
There was less hand-wringing over graduation rates, which have improved since 2006.
Educators said the rise reflected high schools' more interactive approach to incoming freshmen.
"We're focusing our efforts on individual education plans for students," said Ric Mellin, principal of Land O'Lakes High.
In the past, he said, schools might take a semester to get to know students, even as they fell behind. Now, teachers and counselors talk to their middle school counterparts and identify students who need attention before they show up, Mellin said.
"All students need and deserve a personal touch when it comes to helping them to experience success in school," said Hernando school superintendent Lori Romano.
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Hernando schools had relatively stable school grades. With the exception of Central High, which bumped its grade from C to B, the county's other high schools did not rise or fall.
In Pinellas, the graduation rate of 76.2 percent surpassed neighboring Hillsborough's rate of 73.5 percent.
The rate for black students in Pinellas was especially significant, improving from 56.4 percent to 60.7 percent.
Superintendent Mike Grego credited Pinellas' greatly expanded summer programs and its efforts to match struggling students with "caring adults."
He said he expects the graduation rate to continue to climb. The key, he said, is "keeping students on grade level before they get to high school."
Despite the good news on graduation rates, Pinellas couldn't maintain its roster of all A and B schools, achieved for the first time last year.
Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Largo and Northeast high schools all fell to C grades. Several Pinellas high schools lost their A status.
Pasco County had five A-rated schools, with the rest B's and C's. Its graduation rate was above the state average.
Superintendent Kurt Browning said he was "ecstatic" with the results. "But I'd still caution anyone from reading too much into these grades," he added, noting they're based on old data that has no future comparison point.
Hillsborough's 27 traditional high schools earned 10 A's and 10 B's despite the tougher standards. "It's important to note that the state continues to raise the bar and our students and teachers continue to meet the challenge,'' superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.
The high schools with the highest overall point totals were Plant, Newsome and Steinbrenner. Hillsborough's graduation rate dropped slightly from the 2013 rate of 74.1.
The district's white graduation rate was 82.7, the black rate was 60 and the Hispanic rate 68.1.
Staff writers Lisa Gartner and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.