MANATEE -- Tougher tests designed to meet federal standards took a toll on Manatee County's elementary and middle schools.
This year, Manatee County has 17 F and D schools, even with education commissioner Tony Bennett's new safety net rule that only allows schools to drop one letter grade in a year. Manatee County also had five schools on the state's 100 worst performing elementary schools for reading results -- Samoset Elementary, Daughtrey Elementary, Oneco Elementary, Palmetto Elementary and Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary.
Manatee County had 20 A and B schools and 12 C schools. The number of A schools fell by 44 percent from last year.
The 8 schools that had failing grades this year are Manatee Elementary, Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary, Palm View Elementary School, Daughtrey Elementary, Samoset Elementary, Lincoln Middle school. Harllee Middle School and Manatee Charter School.
Bennett said that schools with decreased school grades will not get less state funding.
The state of Florida had 107 failing schools this year, up 2 percent from last year. Bennett said that if the safety net did not exist, the state would have 261 F schools.
The state had 760 A schools this year, a 19 percent decrease from last year.
Bennett said Friday that he is not surprised with grade declines state-wide.
"As a result of raised standards, we have seen a decline in letter grades," Bennett said. "We want to make sure we do not compromise student expectations."
Last year, the FCAT writing passing score was raised from a 3 to a 3.5, which Bennett said contributed to the drop in grades and inspired him to propose maintaining the safety net rule, which he called a "simple and elegant solution."
Help for failing schools
The 100 elementary schools that are the lowest performing in reading will receive assistance from the state to help students.
Cynthia Saunders, the Manatee district's executive director of middle schools, said the state will send a strategic team to work with district staff and the teachers and principals in those schools.
"Part of what happened is that the rigor has increased. We will have to meet those challenges," Saunders said. "In light of those changes, it was a very transitional year for our district."
Saunders said the state team will arrive around the start of this school year, which is Aug. 19. The team will make periodic visits to the district throughout the school year.
"They will be coming with the expectation that at the end there will be increased performance, and they will no longer be needed," Saunders said.
Saunders said the state assistance will not be at a cost to the district.
Manatee County school grades
The schools that received D grades are Ballard Elementary, Bayshore Elementary, Myakka City Elementary, Oneco Elementary, Palmetto Elementary, Blackburn Elementary, Moody Elementary, GD Rogers Garden Elementary and Manatee School for the Arts and Sciences.
Myakka City, Oneco, Blackburn, and Manatee School for the Arts and Sciences all benefited from Bennett's safety net, according to the state, and could have failed if is the safety net had not prevented them from falling more than one letter grade.
Manatee County's 10 A schools are Anna Maria Elementary, Gene Witt Elementary, Haile Middle School, Nolan Middle School, McNeal Elementary, Mills Elementary, Willis Elementary School, Oasis Middle School, Palmetto Charter School and the State College of Florida Collegiate School.
All of these schools were also A schools last year with the exception of Oasis Middle School, a charter school that came up from a D last year.
Sugg Middle School, King Middle School, Buffalo Creek Middle School and Imagine Charter School at North Manatee all had grades of incomplete.
Jane Fletcher, the director of accountability, research and measurement, said there are several reasons why a school may get an incomplete.
"They may not have tested a large enough portion of students, or there may be anomalies in testing information," Fletcher said.
Deputy superintendent of instruction Diana Greene said the state sent the incomplete grades for the four schools in Manatee County based on a high number of erasing marks to change answers on the test. The district is required to investigate.
"We will go out and do interviews with a sampling of students, test coordinators, and it can also include teachers," Greene said. "It doesn't mean that anything is wrong or out of place."
Greene said that the district will turn in the information to the state and expects to receive grades for those schools by Aug. 15.
Greene said this is not the first time that schools in Manatee County have received an incomplete.
Bennett said that while calculating a school grade is a complex process, an important portion of it is student gains.
Fletcher said learning gains occur if they show improvement in their scores or if they are consistent in their scores from one grade level to the next.
"Students who stay consistent are also considered a gain because they show they are proficient on higher level content," Fletcher said.
Bennett said that there are demographic factors that affect school grades, as well.
"There is an indisputable correlation to achievement and socioeconomics," Bennett said. "Any student is capable of getting a year of growth and instruction. They are all entitled to it."
Greene said that schools have to do things differently for those students.
"It doesn't mean that they can't be proficient or that we lose those students," Greene said. "Whatever instructional methods the teacher is using, they have to address those issues. We need to ensure that strong instruction is happening during the time they are with us."
Increasing student performance
Greene said the executive director of middle schools and the executive director of high schools, along with whomever is hired to be executive director of elementary schools, will be working with each school. Verdya Bradley, the associate director of innovative programs and parental option, is expected to work directly with schools that have grades of D or F and meet with the principals of those schools monthly.
"We need to help create action plans for diverse classrooms and create an environment for success," Greene said.
Greene said that district should continue partnering with programs that help provide for students, such as those that give food to children to bring home on holidays and weekends.
Greene also said that she would like to see teachers in the district be able to share data throughout the year with students to allow them to take ownership of their individual performance by monitoring how they are doing.
Bennett said that he is optimistic about future school grades in Florida.
"If we look historically, Florida has had a rich history of raising expectations, then a decline in performance followed by a raise in student performance," Bennett said. "It is very likely a phenomenon we will see in 2014-2015."
Bennett said that Common Core will bring more rigourous standards in career and college readiness, adding that he believes the increased standards proceed improved performance.
"We will continue this way, which is why we put in the safety net," Bennett said.
Manatee schools Superintendent Rick Mills said at the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club luncheon Friday, where he was a guest speaker, that the district will take another look at its teacher evaluation system before transitioning into Common Core.
He said the district will be meeting with the Manatee Education Association and its president Pat Barber to discuss future steps.
"Manatee County has its own hybrid teacher evaluation, and we are at the early stages of meeting with Pat Barber and the MEA to figure out if we will stay with that evaluation and how to adjust it," Mills said.
Greene said she agrees that the district needs to work hard to analyze what did and did not go well.
"Once you have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, you can develop a plan to address them."
High school grades are expected to be released by November.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.