LAND O' LAKES - Pasco County schools and others across the state will get something of a reprieve later this month when the Florida Department of Education releases school grades.
The state Board of Education, in a 4-3 vote, decided Tuesday to accept Education Commissioner Tony Bennett's recommendation that schools not be allowed to drop more than one letter grade, regardless of test results.
Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning said he supports the decision.
"This is a good start, and assuring that we have stability as we transition to Common Core State Standards is essential to the credibility of Florida's School Accountability System," Browning said in a statement.
"In the long run, it will be important to evaluate the calculation of school grades to accurately reflect all factors that contribute to student success."
Pasco officials had been bracing for bad news as they awaited the release of the grades, and Assistant Superintendent Amelia Van Name Larson said recently that Pasco could have three or four F schools if the state made no effort to provide a safety net.
They and school district officials elsewhere in Florida were concerned because the state had made assessment tests tougher while at the same time raising the scores required to show proficiency, creating the possibility that even a school that improved from a year ago could see its grade drop.
While a one letter-grade drop is still possible, the board's decision does, for example, prevent a C school from becoming an F school or an A school from dropping to a C or lower.
Less than a month ago, Bennett indicated he expected to let grades fall however the data dictated, but at a state board meeting last month superintendents raised questions about the fairness of the grading system.
At board Chairman Gary Chartrand's request, Bennett convened a task force that included superintendents. Based on discussions with that task force July 1, Bennett recommended the state board invoke the grade safety-net measure.
He said one reason for his reversal is that the state's accountability standards have undergone numerous changes in recent years. He wanted to minimize those changes this year so that the focus can be on the biggest change school districts face: the transition to Common Core State Standards.
Bennett also said the formula for calculating grades may have become overly complicated, and a relatively minor part of the scoring can result in a two or three letter-grade drop.
Chartrand, along with board members Ada Armas, John Colon and Barbara Feingold, voted to accept the commissioner's recommendation.
Those opposed were Vice Chairman John Padget and board members Sally Bradshaw and Kathleen Shanahan.
"I don't understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable," Bradshaw said.
The board members who supported Bennett's recommendation agreed that the grade calculations have become overly complicated, and that the state may be using a statistically invalid model to arrive at the results.
Chartrand said he believes in revealing the truth, but added, "I don't think the truth is being revealed in the current grading system."
Placing a limit on the grade drop is not unprecedented. The state board did the same thing last year, and also lowered the proficiency level for the FCAT 2.0 writing exam after early results showed a high percentage of students performed poorly.
The state stuck with a higher writing-proficiency level this year.