The number of A-rated schools leaps from 894 last year to 1,230 statewide. Two Tampa charter schools are the bay area's only F grades.
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published June 19, 2003
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Florida's public schools got a strong report card from the state Wednesday, with almost half the schools earning A grades and the number of F schools dropping by 45 percent.
It was the fifth straight year Florida's schools have showed noticeable improvement.
But never this much improvement.
The number of A-rated schools statewide jumped from 894 last year to 1,230. Fourteen of the 17 schools in Citrus County got top grades, as did 95 percent of the schools in Okaloosa County in Florida's Panhandle.
And all five of last year's F-rated schools in the Tampa Bay area improved enough to escape that indignity this year.
"The A-plus plan is working and I'm really proud of it," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who has built his education reforms around the rewards and sanctions attached to school grades.
Still, there were disappointments.
Nine Florida schools got their second consecutive F grade this year. That means 13,700 students in those schools will be eligible for a voucher they can take this fall to a private school or a better public school.
Two Tampa schools got their first F grades - the only failing grades in the Tampa Bay area. Both are charter schools, which leaves Hillsborough school superintendent Earl Lennard with the task of turning around two schools over which he has limited control. Charter schools are public schools, but they are run by independent boards.
Despite those low points, Wednesday was a day for celebration at most schools. It was almost enough to make some principals forget their distaste for a school grade based entirely on a standardized test.
"I don't want to get too excited, because I don't really believe in the grading," said Blanton Elementary School principal Deborah Turner, whose school jumped from a D to an A this year.
But Turner did get excited. She was overcome with emotion by Wednesday's grade, crying and struggling to find words, just as she did last year when she got bad news.
"I knew we would move up, I even thought it might be an A," said Patti Fowler, principal at Waller Elementary School in Bay County, whose school went from a D to an A. "I just knew they were going to pull the rug out from under me somehow. I figured you had to turn around three times and hiccup to get an A."
Not so. All her school had to do was improve mightily in every category.
The nearly uniform improvement statewide gave ammunition to some critics.
"It sounds to me as if grade inflation for schools in Florida is more of a problem than grade inflation for students," said Walt Haney, a senior research associate at the Boston College Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.
Haney, who has studied testing and accountability nationally, questioned whether a system is credible when 49 percent of the schools are dubbed excellent and 1 percent are dubbed failures.
That credibility will be tested today.
That's when the state will learn how its fourth and eighth graders' reading skills compare to the rest of the nation. Historically, Florida has lagged well behind the national average.
State officials who have seen the report scheduled for release today have said the scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are good news.
"My expectation is that Florida's position will improve," said Education Commissioner Jim Horne. "It will show we're making progress. Are we where we want to be? No."
The NAEP often is used by states to double check their own assessments. The new NAEP scores will be the first since Florida started grading schools. So it will be the first chance to see whether this independent measure shows the same kind of improvement seen in Florida's own test.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is the basis of Florida's school grades, measures students' knowledge in reading, writing and math. A science test was added this year.
Another credibility check comes at the end of July, when the state will reveal which Florida schools are not up to snuff as measured by No Child Left Behind, the new federal school accountability system championed by President Bush.
The federal system is based on each state's tests, so Florida's FCAT will determine which schools fail under the federal rules. But there are differences in how schools are judged.
Several Florida schools - including three in Tampa - will be on the list.
Those three schools were celebrating Wednesday. Tampa's Oak Park, Robles and Shaw elementary schools got F grades last year, but improved to a D this year. Under federal rules, however, any school that has an F and a D grade in consecutive years is failing to make adequate progress.
That means students at the three schools will be eligible this fall to transfer to a higher-rated public school.
But those schools are the exception. Most that got higher grades will receive "school recognition" money for their performance. The state expects to spend $144-million for that purpose this year.
- Staff writers Julie Hauserman, Connie Humburg, Thomas Tobin and Matthew Waite contributed to this report.