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County schools get a lot of C's
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999
All but a few schools in Pasco County are decidedly average, according to Gov. Jeb Bush's new school evaluation system. If the district had a grade point average, it would be a 2.0.
Bush's plan uses student test scores to determine a letter grade, A through F, for every school in the state. Pasco garnered mostly C's. River Ridge Middle School and Lake Myrtle Elementary were the only schools to receive A's. Four schools were rated B, and five received D's.
Ridgewood, Gulf and Land O'Lakes high schools did not receive grades because too many 10th graders didn't take new state tests.
Several educators said they were generally pleased with the grades, considering the newness of Florida's standardized tests and Bush's grading plan. Most quickly added, however, that they think it's a bad idea to evaluate schools primarily on test scores.
"We want our schools to be higher than C's, but it's a pretty good start," said Sandy Ramos, Pasco's assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum. "It'll be more accurate next year when we have two years of scores to look at."
The school grades are an integral part of Bush's school reform plan. Students at schools that receive failing grades may be eligible for private school vouchers. Top-rated schools will get the chance to be freed from most state regulations.
The idea has proved controversial. Educators say the plan is too simplistic because it neglects the effect poverty and other demographic factors have on student test scores. Educators have argued that the school grades are more apt to reflect the relative wealth of a school's student body than the competency of its teachers.
"I'm a little leery of trying to grade schools," said Pine View Middle School principal David Estabrook, whose school earned a B. "I just question the objectivity of the rating in relation to (poverty) and other factors."
A recent Times' statistical analysis of test scores backed up that assertion and found that a school's grade could change substantially if poverty's effects on test scores were factored into the grading system.
Bush, and many educators, have argued that factoring for poverty's effect on test scores is akin to expecting less of poor children.
River Ridge Middle received an A, but the high school received a C. Principal Tina Tiede said the disparity may be a clue that the grades aren't as accurate as the state claims.
"We've been in this game for five or seven years where they keep switching the accountability system on us," Tiede said. "We're proud that the middle school got the A, but I think we've got one of the best high schools around, and it's only a C?"
Lacoochee Elementary, which serves some of the district's most impoverished children, received a D even though its scores on the state's writing test put it just outside the top third in the district.
Principal Ky Grand said the school's reading scores are primarily responsible for Lacoochee's grade. Teachers focused on writing this past year, he said, and have worked out a plan to raise reading scores next year.
"I don't like the D, but it gives us something to work for next year," Grand said.
Ramos said every D-rated school has been asked to write an improvement plan that it will have to present to Superintendent John Long. Long is on vacation is this week and was unavailable to comment.
The good news for Pasco Thursday was on its middle schools, which received five of the district's six A's and B's. No middle school received a D. Bob Dorn, the district's director of middle and high schools, said the middle school grades are evidence Pasco students improve as they progress through school.
"We've been able to get these kids caught up over time," Dorn said.
Although the grades were released Thursday, most schools already had an inkling for where they would land on the grade scale. Test scores were released last month, and school officials had plugged the scores into rough formulas of how grades would be calculated. Some principals, though, still weren't sure how their grades were determined.
Seven Springs Middle School received a B, a solid showing, principal Ronnie Sushko said. But she wasn't quite sure how the state arrived at that B because some data that figures into the grading system (such as attendance and discipline rates) haven't been tallied yet by the school. Those factors are important in distinguishing between schools rated A and those rated B. The factors are not considered for schools scoring lower than a B.
"We're just trying to figure out where this data came from," Sushko said.
A spokeswoman for the state said it incorporated data from last year because this year's numbers are not available. Grades will not be recalculated when the current data becomes available.
The grades have Lake Myrtle Elementary principal Monica Joiner wondering what to do for an encore. The school was the only elementary to earn an A.
"We have to maintain it; that's our goal," she said. "I'm a firm believer that good teaching will result in good test scores."
Three high schools did not receive grades. State officials were concerned that more than 20 percent of students at Gulf, Ridgewood and Land O'Lakes did not take the state tests. State officials have asked Pasco to give them a detailed report on why so many 10th graders failed to take the test.
It's an important question because, generally, a school's test scores tend to go up when fewer students take the exam. Dorn said he doesn't yet have an answer, but it appears that many students who flunked 10th grade last year didn't take the test this year.
"Whatever the reason, the question needs to be resolved," Dorn said.
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