One of the key issues surrounding the latest release of Florida's individual school grades is the higher bar the state employs as enshrined in law. When more than 75 percent of the state's high schools earn A's or B's in one year, the grading criteria gets tougher the next. That occurred in 2013, so this year expectations rose and scoring changed. How can the public compare school performance from year to year under shifting standards?
December's grades for Manatee County are strong. Lakewood Ranch and Braden River public high schools earned A rankings as did two charters, Manatee School for the Arts and the State College of Florida Collegiate School. Manatee and Southeast received B's, and Bayshore and Palmetto slipped one level down to C's. Southeast also fell by one level in these preliminary grades.
It's questionable student performance dropped off. Manatee County's graduation rate, one of the components in the school grading system, stands at 75.7, slightly lower than last year but almost the same as the state mark, 76.1 percent, the highest in 11 years. These figures were also released last week.
Even with three high schools dropping a grade level, this is the third consecutive year Manatee district high schools scored a C or higher. The administration also points out another encouraging factor: 75 percent of district high schools earned an A or B, besting the state mark of 71 percent.
Next year's school grades will be far more confusing since the state this year launched the Florida Standards curriculum, a version of Common Core, and new assessments will also be implemented, replacing the FCAT.
Wisely, the state opted not to penalize schools that score D's and F's next year, which would have forced districts to implement turnaround plans. The 2014-2015 scores will set a new benchmark.
Also this month, the Florida Department of Education released teacher performance marks. Statewide, districts rated 97 percent of all teachers as either "highly effective" or "effective" in 2014, identical rankings from both of the previous years. Manatee County logged the same percentage.
But the education landscape is changing not only with the new curriculum and new student assessments.
The teacher evaluation system remains under fire, too.
After listening to complaints from educators and families about the inequitable system adopted in 2011, the Legislature passed a measure last year to simplify the complicated format.
The new formula emphasizes student achievement, learning gains, graduation rates and acquiring college credits and industry certifications -- and eliminates some of the subjectivity that gave school districts a bit of leeway.
The most controversial factor under the new law is the mandate that 50 percent of a teacher's score be based on student test results. This only adds to the groundswell of criticism about high-stakes testing.
The Florida School Boards Association is calling on legislators to delay the impacts of pending new student tests until 2017, and decouple those scores from teacher evaluations.
On Monday, Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart responded to those complaints, announcing her office will investigate standardized testing in conjunction with school districts. Her primary purpose is to increase transparency for parents about the use of these assessments. While greater understanding of the situation is all fine and well, whether that mutes the withering criticism of the plethora of tests remains to be seen.
Politics drives Florida education policy. As lawmakers have demonstrated, this is a perennial work in progress, frustrating educators, school administrators and boards with all the twists and turns.
Stewart's study should include an analysis of the impact of the state's dependence on standardized testing in the drive for education accountability, and whether this harms students, schools and teachers -- as many Floridians contend.