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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
School grades across Florida dipped this year under a modified grading system, with slightly fewer A's and B's and double the number of D's and F's, according to state data released Friday.
Many district officials knew it was coming, but the lash of a bad grade still stung as much as ever.
"If we were under the old grading scale, we would be a B," said Denny Oest, principal of Lennard High School, which became Hillsborough County's first-ever F high school. "But with the new scale, we ended up with a failing grade."
The number of D schools rose from 122 to 220, while the number of F schools quadrupled to a record 82. Meanwhile, the number of A schools increased slightly and the number of B's dropped nearly 25 percent.
The way state education officials see it: No pain, no gain.
The tweaks in the grading formula were designed to raise the bar, which the state has done several times since former Gov. Jeb Bush instituted the school-grading system in 1999. Each time, grades dropped the first year, only to rise again.
"Where we are is exactly where we expected to be," said Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg.
Added Gov. Charlie Crist: "Repeatedly, we have seen that when expectations increase, Florida students and schools respond by stepping up to the plate and improving student performance -- and therefore, student learning."
It remains to be seen whether parents and teachers will be swayed.
School grades are a key part of the accountability system that Bush built around the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. And Bush's system took a massive hit in credibility last month when the Department of Education disclosed 200,000 third-grade reading scores in 2006 may have been inflated due to human error.
The department did not use those scores in calculating this year's school grades, which are in part based on student academic growth from one year to the next. It did, though, include several changes that schools knew about in advance.
Among them: the addition of FCAT science scores, which have been anemic. And a penalty that results in the loss of a letter grade if a majority of a school's lowest-performing students don't improve in math. Previously, that penalty only came into play with reading scores.
Earlier this month -- and in the wake of the botched FCAT -- Blomberg recommended the penalty provisions be suspended and last year's formula remain in place. But the Board of Education, led by T. Willard Fair, a Bush ally who was reappointed by Crist, said no. "We want to make school grades look better" is not a good rationale for an emergency rule change, said board member Roberto Martinez.
In Pinellas, the number of A and B schools dropped a notch, from 78 to 75 percent. But the district did not record its first F high school as feared.
The biggest worry: middle schools. Six in Pinellas dropped their grades while none upped them, unlike the district's elementary and high schools. The clear culprit: science scores.
"We know where we're going to be focusing," said deputy superintendent Julie Janssen.
In Hillsborough, the number of A's rose from 45 to 50 percent. But the number of D's and F's doubled.
"All of those schools have faced challenges, but that's not an excuse," Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said of that district's five F schools. "What we have to do is dissect their data and determine what they've done right and what we need to do differently or support more."
Also released Friday: how Florida schools rated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The good news: The number of Florida schools making "adequate yearly progress" -- which is how federal officials define success -- rose for the first time this year.
The bad: 67 percent are still not meeting federal standards. And more than 400 of them must begin planning for a potentially dramatic -- but probably unlikely -- restructuring.
Both Florida's grading system and the No Child ratings are based on the FCAT, but they analyze the scores in different ways. Under the state system, a school's overall scores might be modest, but if its struggling students are making gains, the school can still earn an A or B. Under the federal system, a school's overall scores might be stellar, but if minority, low-income or disabled students fall short, the whole school is deemed in need of improvement.
The state and federal systems also differ on consequences. Under the state system, high-performing schools earn "school recognition money" -- $100 per student -- that's usually converted into modest bonuses for teachers. Blomberg said Friday that 1, 588 schools will get the extra money this year, down from 1,799 last year. A dollar figure was not available.
Under No Child, high-poverty schools that fail to meet federal standards five years in a row -- which is where 441 Florida schools now find themselves -- must begin planning for one of several options, including a state takeover, the firing of top staff or "any other major restructuring."
Outside Florida, many districts have turned to the last option for their schools -- and imposed modest changes.
Times staff writers Amber Mobley and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or email@example.com Comments can also be posted on the Times education blog, the Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
The Board of Education incorporated three new components into this year's formula for grading schools:
-Science scores. Students in grades 5, 8 and 11 take the test, but their scores were not incorporated into school grades until this year. Those scores were not good: Only 42 percent of fifth-graders, 38 percent of eighth-graders and 37 percent of eleventh-graders passed.
-Retake bonuses. High schools can earn extra points if at least 50 percent of their 11th- and 12th-graders pass the 10th-grade FCAT in reading and math when they retake it. Students must pass the 10th-grade FCATs to graduate with a regular diploma.
-Math penalty. Schools that would otherwise be a C or above lose a full letter grade if a majority of students in their lowest-performing 25 percent do not make gains in math. Previously, that penalty came into play only with reading scores among those students.