A nonprofit organization is calling for an investigation into the School District of Manatee County and two other districts, accusing them of grade inflation among middle school classrooms.
Students in Manatee, Polk and Duval counties passed their end-of-course civics exam at a much higher rate in 2018 than in 2017, but the number of test-takers dropped by thousands, according to a news release from the Florida Coalition of School Board Members.
In a prepared statement, Superintendent Diana Greene said the coalition was wrong to accuse Manatee's school district of something nefarious. It's in the best interest of some students to take the exam at a later date, she added.
"Manatee followed the lead of several other Districts, including Sarasota, to allow struggling students to take the EOC Assessment in the eighth grade," Greene said.
The number of middle school students who passed the civics exam in Manatee jumped 13 points, from 66 to 79 percent, according to documents provided by the coalition. In a comparison of passing rates among Florida's largest districts, Manatee ranked No. 34 in 2017, and it climbed to the No. 5 spot this year.
Manatee's improvements, the coalition said, are tainted by the fact that more than 900 fewer students took the exam in 2018.
The coalition describes itself as a nonprofit, individual membership organization for elected school board members and candidates. In its release, the group said it wanted the state Department of Education to halt its release of school grades, allowing for a full investigation of the test results.
State officials released the school grades on Wednesday afternoon, and it remains unclear whether an investigation will take place.
"There is an existing process for residents to raise concerns for the department's review," DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden said in an email on Wednesday. "At this time, we have no requests for an investigation from the Florida Coalition of School Board Members."
Bridget Ziegler, a founding member of the coalition and the board chair for Sarasota County Schools, did not respond to a request for clarification.
Duval's passing rate jumped 18 points, from 66 to 84 percent, but nearly 3,000 fewer students took the exam. The coalition's release quoted Scott Shine, a member of the district's school board.
"A-F grades are designed to give parents clear, transparent measures of school performance," he said. "If schools game the system, they are essentially lying to parents about the performance of their children's schools."
According to the coalition, grade inflation boosts the reputation of district leaders, and it benefits schools by attracting money from the Florida School Recognition Program, which awards schools that "demonstrate sustained or significantly improved student performance."
Such inflation may also exempt districts from a controversial initiative called Schools of Hope, the coalition said.
Polk had the highest jump in its passing rate and the greatest decrease in test-takers. It ranked No. 43 among 50 districts in 2017, and it tied for the No. 2 spot this year. The number test-takers dropped by more than 3,700 students.
"We want to see schools make genuine improvements in teaching and learning," Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran said in the release. "I am concerned some districts are inflating their results.