The year 2013 was a record-setting time for Florida schools -- but in a way that may leave confused parents scratching their heads.
The state's controversial A-to-F grading system was kind to high schools, but much harsher in its treatment of the lower grades.
A record number of high schools this year -- 240 -- achieved the coveted "A" grade. For elementary and middle schools, however, a record-high 107 Florida schools earned an "F."
Elementary and middle school grades were announced over the summer, with high school grades made public earlier this month. The stakes are enormously high, as A-rated schools receive bonuses and may even influence property values. Schools with repeated F or D grades, meanwhile, could be forced to close.
Florida Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick dismissed the suggestion that Florida's school grades -- as extremes of success and failure -- amount to one giant contradiction. Though all school grades are heavily influenced by standardized test scores, Follick noted high school grades also include other factors such as graduation rates and student participation in rigorous courses, such as Advanced Placement.
"Those are things that are measurable in high school that, by definition, cannot be measured in elementary and middle schools," Follick said. He added that school grades are an "important and a valuable tool" that helps drives community discussion of "what do we value, what do we want to measure, and what do we expect from our kids when they graduate."
But others see the wide divide between high schools and lower grades as further evidence of the credibility gap facing Florida education leaders.
Aaron Pallas, a professor who studies school accountability systems at Columbia University's Teachers College, said the "very jarring" discrepancy presents a political problem for the Department of Education. It's hard for the public to accept, he said, that Florida high schools are a rousing success at the exact same time that all other schools are setting new lows for failure.
Pallas said there's no proof elementary and middle schools are truly performing worse than before. He attributed this year's surge in F grades to Florida changing the passing score on the writing test that younger students take. Instead of a 3.0 being sufficient, students this year needed to get a 3.5. The test is scored on a 6 point scale.
At schools such as Miami's Morningside K-8 Academy, student writing scores were actually much improved this year, but the school was still penalized because students struggled to meet the new, much tougher minimum score. The 2013 passage rate was 47 percent, while two years ago, when 3.0 was a sufficient, its passage rate was 74 percent. If the standard had remained at 3.0, 86 percent would have passed this year. Morningside's school grade dropped from a B to a C.
The same trend held true
for Miami-Dade and Broward schools as a whole. Both districts improved their writing performance in 2013, but were penalized as if they had gotten much worse because of the shift from 3.0 to 3.5. On the fourth-grade level in 2013, 58 percent of students in Miami-Dade passed with a 3.5 or above, while 84 percent scored 3.0 or above. And in Broward, 64 percent passed with a 3.5 or above, while 86 percent scored 3.0 or above.
"There's no science that said that a 3.5 was a more-appropriate standard," Pallas said. "That was just a judgment made by the Department of Education."
There are other numerical targets in school grades that appear equally arbitrary. For example, Florida schools are given an A grade if they receive at least 65.6 percent of the total "points" that can be earned for school performance in areas that include graduation rates, college readiness (such as SAT or ACT scores), and the number of students graduating with industry certifications.
Broward school district officials collectively shrugged when asked why Florida draws the line for excellence at 65.6 percent -- a relatively obscure number.
Said Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie: "A lot of this stuff, we're having some trouble trying to figure out what the actual statistical basis or rationale is for how it comes about."
Runcie and others are pushing for Florida to take a two-year break from issuing school grades, as the education system is simultaneously dealing with a variety of complicated policy changes. Those changes include teaching to the new (and oft-criticized) Common Core curriculum, and choosing a new standardized test that will replace the FCAT.
"Having a rational transition period will make a lot of sense for this state," Runcie said. "So there's going to be a lot of conversation in the state Legislature this year, in Tallahassee, about what's the path to go forward."
Former Gov. Jeb Bush created the A-to-F program in 1999, with the promise that it would make it easier for parents to compare schools and judge how a school is performing.
Since then, however, Florida's grading formula has been altered and tweaked countless times -- leading to an elaborate patchwork quilt that is hard for the public to decipher. Earlier this year, Florida Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan -- a former Bush chief of staff -- complained the state had "overcomplicated" the system.
"I don't think it's a statistically valid model anymore," Shanahan said then.
Adding to the skepticism surrounding school grades: Former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, a close ally of Bush's, abruptly resigned from his post in August after the Associated Press published damaging emails dating back to Bennett's time as schools chief in Indiana. The emails showed that Bennett tweaked the school grading formula last year to benefit an Indiana charter school run by a prominent Republican Party donor.
Before the change, the Christel House Academy was a "C" school. After the change, it became an "A." The school's 2013 grade, issued earlier this month, is an "F."
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, warns that Florida's grading system is also vulnerable to political manipulation.
"People should be skeptical, highly skeptical, of these things," Welner said. He said he supports holding schools accountable, but that Florida makes the mistake of prioritizing accountability over the more important goal of improving education.
But what about parents who need help picking a school?
"The only good answer is, please visit the school," Welner said. "Sit in on the class, get a feel for the culture in the school."
Though Florida is frequently chastised for the constant changes to its school grading system, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho argues that high schools are clearly better off now than they were under the rules of a few years ago.
Back then, all schools -- elementary, middle and high -- were graded based on standardized test scores. For schools with high poverty rates, this methodology was particularly challenging, as test scores are strongly correlated to family income.
Inner-city schools such as Miami Northwestern and Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High struggled with repeated failing grades -- putting their very survival at jeopardy.
This year, both Miami Northwestern and Dillard celebrated earning their first "A" grade. Both have made progress in their test scores, but both also benefited greatly from the newer grading format, introduced in 2010, in which test scores only account for half the grade. The other half awards points to high schools for school performance.
At elementary and middle schools, the state grade is still overwhelmingly driven by test scores.
For high schools, Carvalho says the new-and-improved formula has helped Northwestern and other Miami-Dade schools exit the "danger zone" of a possible state-forced shutdown.
It also made achieving an "A" grade much more possible. Students and teachers get praised -- or blamed -- when annual letter grades come out, but a huge piece of the outcome is determined by how Florida designs its measuring stick in that particular year.
A Miami Herald analysis shows that, for Northwestern and Dillard, being evaluated solely on test scores -- as was the practice in the past -- would have resulted in "C" grades for both schools this year.
At Dillard, test scores are rising, but only 39 percent of students this year were deemed to be reading at "satisfactory or higher" levels by the state.
"I could see why a person would look at that and say 'Whoa, is that really an A school?'" acknowledged Dillard Principal Casandra Robinson. "You have to look at where you're coming from."
Robinson was also skeptical that the state's 39 percent figure was, in fact, accurate.
"I would wager that it is higher," she said. "Because that score, that number, is based upon how students tested that one day . I believe some of it is unfair and arbitrary."