CLEARWATER - Education officials throughout Florida have claimed that students are learning more in schools than ever before, but you'd never know it by the latest school grades, released Friday.
In Pinellas County, the number of elementary, middle and K-8 schools receiving an A ranking dropped by nearly half, from 42 in 2012 to 23 this year, while the number of F schools increased from three to eight, according to the grades released by the state Department of Education.
The school district saw its number of B schools go from 18 to 25, C schools go from 16 to 22 and D schools go from 14 to 13.
Even with a "safety net" in place that prevented schools from dropping more than one letter grade, about 53 percent of elementary, middle and K-8 schools across Florida regressed - a "phenomenon" State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said likely would be repeated next year as schools transition to tougher tests and standards. In Pinellas County, which was rated a C school district for the second year in a row, the percentage was essentially the same, with about 52 percent of schools receiving lower grades than last year.
Without the safety net, Pinellas County would have had seven more F schools; 11 B schools and two C schools also had their grades bolstered.
The declines were expected, said Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego. The state has adopted tougher FCAT grading and school curriculum changes, as Florida transitions to new national standards called the Common Core for the 2014-2015 school year.
"It's not that our students or teachers are doing any less of a good job; the bar has just been set higher," Grego said. "We have to understand that this is a process. We want our students to be competitive - not only in Florida and nationally, but internationally, and I believe we're on the right path. Along the way, when you're stepping up the rigor, you're going to have some growing pains."
Hillsborough County saw its number of A schools drop from 84 schools last year to 61, while the number of F schools jumped from two to five. In Pasco County, the number of D schools more than doubled, while the number of A schools and B schools dropped. The school district had no F schools.
In Pinellas, Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park Elementary and Dunedin Elementary dropped from a D to and F. The privately owned Imagine Charter School in St. Petersburg's middle and elementary schools both received F grades for the second year in a row. Despite pleas from parents, teachers and students this year, the school district closed Imagine Elementary for poor performance.
The other four F schools are "turnaround schools," with a history of low test scores and school grades where teachers and administrators had to reapply for their jobs this year. Azalea Middle in St. Petersburg got it's second consecutive F, and Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg got its third consecutive F. Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg went from a D to an F, while Maximo Elementary in St. Petersburg got its third consecutive F. Pinellas Park Middle, another turnaround school, got its third consecutive D.
The school district now has to develop a similar turnaround plan this fall for its other F schools and submit it to the state Board of Education in January. Grego promised that the school district would be "very proactive" in implementing changes.
High schools will have to wait until the end of the year to see how they fared.
"I've never had a lot of confidence in the meaning of these school grades, and artificially controlling how much they can fluctuate makes them even more irrelevant," said Carl Zimmerman, a teacher at Countryside High School in Clearwater. "There's tremendous pressure on teachers to keep our school grades up, and a lot of it is out of our control. So many things are left out, like how much a teacher truly cares. It's hard to see drops and know how much work goes in; it certainly makes us nervous."
Florida went from 40 F schools last year to 107 this year. Without the safety net, which helped 550 schools, the state would have had 261 F schools. The number of A's in Florida dropped from 1,242 to 760, while the number of B's increased from 609 to 677, C's from 494 to 721 and D's from 212 to 353.
The grades shouldn't be viewed as a condemnation of state schools, but educators should view them as a true indicator of areas that need improvement instead of "defending that the grading isn't valid," Bennett said.
"I think there's no question that the schools that are A schools are unquestionably A schools, and I would also say the same about the schools that are at the bottom of the scale," Bennett said. "These schools received that score even with the safety net provision."
The school grades won't effect teacher evaluations but will make a difference in the amount of funding the school district receives. The state provides school recognition funds for schools that remain at an A level or increase a letter grade.
Teachers in schools with low grades are "watched very carefully," through visits from the Department of Education and the school district and are required to take additional professional development courses, said Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas County Teachers Association.
"I don't think teachers sit by their computers waiting for school grades to come out, though there will be phone calls next week, and a lot more analysis will be done over what it really means and where the deficiencies are," Proud said. "This definitely shows that there's room for improvement ... but I don't think school grades should be reflective of the amount of work a teacher puts in."
Still, school grades are invaluable to parents, said Brooke Hefte, whose children attend Shore Acres Elementary, an A school, and Meadowlawn Middle School, a C school, both in St. Petersburg.
"I've been very pleased with Shore Acres, though I was concerned sending my oldest daughter to Meadowlawn, but she's in honors classes and has done very well, so we haven't had any big issues," Hefte said. "School grades were a big factor when we decided where to send them. Had we not gotten into Shore Acres, we were seriously considering private school."
School grades are also a big selling point in her business, as a Relator with Remax Metro Real Estate Services in St. Petersburg. Parents look at school grades when picking out their homes, and a dip in school grades could translate to a dip in business, she said.
Despite the low numbers, there were some success stories in Pinellas County. Five schools improved their grades: Bay Point Middle, Oak Grove Middle, Oakhurst Elementary, Lake St. George Elementary and Woodlawn Elementary, which increased from a D to a B.