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School grades puzzle some, please most

In the first year of grading by a new scoring system, 11 area schools improve and five decline.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


When grades came out last week for schools in north and west Hillsborough, administrators breathed a sigh of relief. Their report cards were mostly glowing.

The majority of elementary, middle and high schools either maintained or improved their grades, despite a new, more stringent scoring system this year that produced the county's first F's.

Of all the schools in the North of Tampa area, five saw declines and 11 improved. The rest received the same score they had received last year.

"We're still floating on clouds," said Daisy Silva, the principal assistant at Cannella Elementary, which jumped from a C to an A. "We worked very hard for it all year."

Because of the state's new grading criteria, though, some administrators were mystified by their school's grades. For instance, at Lake Magdalene Elementary, which had two years of A grades, principal Faye Pages was puzzled by her school's B this year.

"It confuses me," Pages said. "If you look at the grades, they're flip-flopping all over. I felt exactly the same when we had an A as I did when we got a B; I don't like it (the grading system). I didn't like it then and still don't like it."

Until this year, Florida had assigned school grades based on the percentage of fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-grade students meeting state standards in reading, writing and math. Under the new system, grades at the end of this school year were based on three factors:

-- Students in grades three through 10 meeting the state standards in reading, writing and math.

-- The learning gains those students make in reading and math from one year to the next.

-- The improvement in reading scores among the lowest-performing students.

In Lake Magdalene's case, students received a raw score of 427 that would have earned them an A in past years. But one key factor, the score of lowest-performing students on the reading portion of the test, was not high enough in relation to the score of the entire school to warrant an A grade. Pages said reading was the school's Achilles' heel, despite her best effort to get more tutors and reading coaches. "We did everything we could do," she said.

Bellamy Elementary Principal Lynn Rattray had every reason to celebrate when her school bounced back from a C last year to earn an A this year. But Rattray could only muster cautious optimism over the score.

"The story behind it is, it's a faulty grading system," Rattray said. "Our actual test scores the year we got the C were higher than some schools that got the A. We don't know how they arrive at the grades. It's very frustrating."

Carrollwood Elementary Principal Jan King felt that frustration when she was the top administrator at Mitchell Elementary two years ago. While King was there, Mitchell dropped from an A to a B because the students' writing scores dropped from 100 percent to 94 percent.

Now, King is watching her new school, Carrollwood, move in the opposite direction. The school has steadily risen from a C two years ago to an A this year.

"We placed a major emphasis on reading because reading is key to every other subject area," King said. To address the concerns about the reading level of those low-performing students, King relied on the school's "Grandparents' Club," which is made up of volunteer seniors who devoted extra time to tutoring or simply reading books to students.

"We knew we were an A school, but now the governor knows, too," King said.

The governor knows that Claywell Elementary is an A school because of its unbroken string of top scores during the past four years. But the challenge there is maintaining the high level, said principal Glenda Midili.

"It's harder every year," Midili said. "It really is an ever-narrowing eye of the needle. But we don't have a magic modus operandi. We have a potent mixture of pride, professionalism and persistence and we just remain true to that."

Midili said her teachers have learned not to focus too much on the FCAT, and instead place an emphasis on educational fundamentals.

"They (the state) keep changing where they place the goal posts, so you're chasing a myth," Midili said. "We stick to what we know is right whether there's an outside criteria or not. We love it when it's an A, but that can't be your gauge because those are shifting sands."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com

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