Take new Florida, Manatee County school grades with big dose of salt

July 30, 2013 

Preliminary school grades for Manatee county middle and high schools have been released by the Florida Department of Education. Seventeen Manatee schools have received D or F grades from the state. Photo Illustration by Paul Videla/Bradenton Herald.

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In light of the precipitous drop in elementary and middle school grades across Florida, public perception should be tempered by the fact that harder tests and tougher grading are mostly responsible -- as expected. The more rigorous benchmarks are essential as the state transitions to Common Core State Standards in order to improve student success in career and college readiness.

Manatee County's school district stands in a difficult position with a host of new top administrators now executing a recovery plan from financial mismanagement and a budget shortfall, while also implementing strategies to improve student achievement.

That's more than a full plate for a leadership team only in place for several months now.

Under these conditions, we must move past the just-released scores and unite behind the school board and administration moving forward. Those marks are disappointing but not indicative of the wholesale changes under way in the district.

Our primary take-away from the new school grades is more of an indictment of a process that is impossible to rank compared with years past.

In 2011, 94 percent of Manatee district schools scored an A, B or C. As standards shifted the past two years, that percentage fell to 81 in 2012 and then 60 this year.

Ten schools received an A this year compared with 18 in 2012. The number of F schools rose from only one in 2012 to eight this year.

More than half of Manatee County schools -- 57 percent, or 30 schools -- dropped a letter grade.

Statewide, that figure stands at 53 percent, this in the second consecutive year the state adopted a "safety net" rule that prevents schools from falling more than one letter grade.

We don't believe teachers suddenly became less effective or students less accomplished. Yet public perception is another thing entirely -- one that matters a great deal. Economic development depends on a well-educated workforce, and employers and families outside Florida are loathe to locate in a state where schools under-perform.

Across Florida, only 29 percent of schools earned an A -- a steep fall from 48 percent in 2012.

The increase in the number of F middle and elementary schools is staggering -- 168 percent, from 40 to 107. In addition, 550 schools would have dropped another letter grade without the "safety net" rule -- including four in Manatee County.

The current 2-year-old scoring system will become obsolete with the complete implementation of Common Core during the 2015-2016 school year -- further rending historic comparisons a fool's task.

The latest grades -- high school scores will arrive sometime in the fall -- should only serve as more determined motivation to improve student achievement.

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