Earlier than expected — and without any advance warning to school leaders or the public — the Florida Department of Education released a mixed bag of school grades Friday.
The number of schools earning A grades dropped dramatically, both across the state and in the Tampa Bay region, due partly to a change in the way the grades are calculated.
Some perennially low-performing schools, however, had reason to celebrate. Statewide, the number of F-rated schools went from 204 last year to 103, the Education Department said.
Friday's release caught some top schools officials off guard. Many districts, operating on reduced summer hours, were not open. Superintendents, who in the past got the data a few hours before the general release, received no heads-up that the news was coming.
"I would have probably given prior notice to superintendents, so superintendents could have prepared more definitely a response," Pasco schools chief executive Kurt Browning said.
Department officials said they were reviewing data for accuracy until its release. They would not comment on the timing.
School grades are based mostly on how students fare on the annual Florida Standards Assessments. Schools that earn top or improved grades are eligible for incentive money.
Even before the grades were issued Friday, some superintendents had anticipated less-than-positive results.
In the past, schools got credit for making "learning gains" if students maintained average scores from one year to the next. Now, students must have an actual score higher than the year before.
State education officials also made it more difficult for lower-performing students to show growth.
The superintendents' predictions largely held true.
In Pasco County, for instance, three schools saw their grades improve, while 35 regressed. In Hernando County, the grades of 10 schools, including all five high schools, dropped. Only two schools' grades went up.
"It's a little bit disappointing, I guess," said Hernando School Board member Mark Johnson, who speculated that some of the decline was due to tougher standards for demonstrating improvement.
In Hillsborough, the number of A schools dropped from 85 to 51. In Pinellas, the figure went from 45 to 34.
For months, superintendents have raised concerns that the new grading system does not appropriately illustrate school performance.
"The learning gains calculation is complicated and confusing," Seminole superintendent Walt Griffin said in a joint news release with Orange County superintendent Barbara Jenkins. "It needs to be overhauled and completely revised."
Browning, the Pasco superintendent, said he had never in his four decades of government service "seen anything more complex than the Florida grading system."
On Friday, he warned his top staffers that the district needed to improve academically. But he also called upon state leaders to tweak the grading system to make it more accurately reflect how schools are doing.
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State Education Department officials, meanwhile, stood by the model.
While the new formula makes it tougher for schools and districts to receive credit for learning gains, "this clearer, more simplified process provides an incentive for ensuring students are truly prepared for success," spokeswoman Alix Miller in an email.
Along with the school grades, the state also issued district grades Friday. Pinellas and Hernando counties maintained their B's, while Hillsborough dropped from A to B, and Pasco from B to C.
Only three districts — Okaloosa, Sarasota and St. Johns — earned A's.
The state released its list of 300 lowest-performing elementary schools in reading, as well. Forty Hillsborough schools appeared on the list, along with 12 in Pinellas, 10 in Pasco and one in Hernando.
Those schools are required to provide an extra hour of reading instruction daily.
The release of school grades also brought bad news for four charter schools throughout the state that now face automatic termination of their charters after receiving their third consecutive F.
One of those schools on the chopping block is University Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade charter school established in 2013 to provide local students an alternative from their failing neighborhood schools.
An emergency University Prep board meeting was held Friday to vote on whether the school should apply for a waiver to keep the school open for one more year, or not bother fighting closure. The grades came out during the meeting, and the board unanimously voted to delay voting to see what the school's argument would be to receive a waiver.
Times staff writers Dan DeWitt, Marlene Sokol and Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.