JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Schools are mostly pleased with the FCAT grades. But there's also distrust that so much rides on one single test.
BROOKSVILLE - Lounett Edwards couldn't say she was surprised, but she sure was elated to learn Wednesday that her daughter Chasity's elementary school had earned an A in Florida's school accountability program.
Teachers at Eastside Elementary, which never had scored above a C, had identified Chasity's reading troubles early and helped her make the honor roll, Edwards said. Eastside educators worked hard with children and their parents to constantly improve their school, which in the past usually logged the county's worst scores, she said.
"One of the targets has been to get the parents more involved. I think they've accomplished this to a great degree, which reflects in this better rating," said Edwards, a member of the school's advisory committee.
Eastside's improvement clearly was the most significant among Hernando County schools, but it was not the only sign of success. Six schools saw their grades rise on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. None did worse than the year before.
Six elementary schools earned A's, and the rest got B's. Three of the county's four middle schools turned their C's into B's. The high schools remained average, with their fifth C's in five years of the state grading program.
Superintendent Wendy Tellone had mixed feelings about the results, which Gov. Jeb Bush announced Wednesday morning.
On the one hand, Tellone said, the grades demonstrated that Hernando County children are learning and improving.
"I'm extremely proud of all our staff and students. They have a right to be proud because the results are proof of their hard work and dedication," Tellone said, adding that she was impressed that several schools were able to maintain A grades. "We're moving in the right direction."
On the other side of the equation, though, was her lingering distrust of a grade based largely on one test, with added factors that allow a small number of students to skew the result wildly.
Case in point was Brooksville Elementary School.
Students at Brooksville Elementary consistently log among the county's best test scores. This year they were second best, behind only Chocachatti Elementary, with improvement in every category. Yet Brooksville scored a B, while others with lower marks made A's, because 77 percent of its students made gains in reading compared with 65 percent of those in the lowest-performing quarter.
The state requires that the percentage point difference between the entire school population and the lowest-performing quarter be no greater than 10 for a school to earn an A.
"Basically, if our kids making learning gains in reading had not done so well, we would have been an A," principal Sue Stoops said. "It has just been the most devastating news."
She tried to give the news a positive spin, noting the second-highest scores in the county. Still, Stoops said, when a system gives grades, "you like to be graded well."
Tellone said she felt bad for Brooksville Elementary's students, parents and staff, because she believed the school deserved an A.
"This is when I get a little concerned about the way it is done," Tellone said.
Otherwise, she stressed, the news was great.
Marvin Gordon, principal of Parrott Middle School, was interviewing job candidates when the grades came out. He did not know that his school had improved from a C to a B.
"So we're a B school?" he said, sounding surprised when informed by a reporter. "Great. Excellent. I've been praying for this, because we've been working hard for this."
The school staff placed additional emphasis on reading and math instruction during the year, offering extra assistance to students not just in Level 1 - considered failing - but also in Level 2, Gordon said.
"Everyone just pitched in and worked very hard," he said.
Pine Grove Elementary improved from a B to an A this year. Principal Dave Dannemiller said he had expected the school to do well.
But he also recognized that if a small number of students had scored differently, the school's grade just as easily could have fallen.
"To be honest with you, it's such a few students here and there that you never know whether it's a C or an A," Dannemiller said.
He did not dismiss the grade out of hand, though, and said he knew the school could put the state recognition funds to good use. Better than the promise of money, he said, was the knowledge that the teachers prepared their students well, and the students performed.
Dannemiller said the school would celebrate in the fall. They also will continue to look for ways to improve.
"We need to sit down and see what our successes are and keep on working on them," Dannemiller said. "I spend much more time looking at programs, looking at how they impact student performance individually."
Tellone said the entire district would do the same.
"We still see some things that could possibly be revised," she said.
- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education and politics in Hernando County. He can be reached at 352 754-6115 or firstname.lastname@example.org