Despite recent accusations, Manatee County's school district is not guilty of grade inflation. In fact, the district's actions were "educationally sound," according to Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart.
Manatee came under fire on June 26, when the Florida Coalition of School Board Members called certain testing data into question.
The number of middle school students who took an end-of-course civics exam dropped by more than 900 between 2017 to 2018. In turn, Manatee's passing rate jumped from 66 percent to 79 percent. The same accusation was pointed at Duval and Polk counties.
Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, sent a letter to the education commissioner days later. It included the names of five other Republican lawmakers who called the accusations "alarming" and "shameful."
Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"As parents of public school students and taxpayers, we share skepticism of the three counties' testing practices with the public, and now we want to know more," the letter states.
In a letter dated July 3, Stewart addressed the lawmakers with a response. While the civics exam is written on a seventh-grade level, Florida law only requires that students take the test before they graduate from middle school.
"This statutory flexibility provides districts the ability to schedule students for civics considering educationally sound factors, such as staffing levels and student maturity," the letter states.
When the accusations arose, former Superintendent Diana Greene cited the flexible law and the importance of giving students adequate time to learn.
Stewart said her office researched five years worth of data and found that delaying test-takers can lead to improved learning and performance.
Between 2015 to 2016, the number of middle school students who took the civics exam in Osceola County dropped from approximately 4,650 to 1,300. Naturally, the passing rate increased to about 70 percent, according to Stewart's letter.
Students then took the test as eighth graders, bringing the number of test-takers back to historical levels, and the district's passing rate climbed another three percentage points.
Bridget Ziegler is a founding member of the coalition that brought Manatee and other districts into question. She is also the board chair for Sarasota County Schools, which recently saw its own decline in test-takers.
Ziegler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While nearly 4,080 Sarasota County students took the exam in 2016, less than 380 did so in 2017, according to Stewart's letter. The number of test-takers climbed when students entered the eighth grade.
The commissioner's letter said Sarasota is joined by Levy, Hamilton and Bradford counties — each utilizing the same practice in past years.
However, such data could be viewed in a different light. Fischer was joined by Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami; Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples; Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa; Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora; and Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, on the letter that questioned "dishonest and unethical" practices.
Their letter asked several questions: Who determines which students take the exam? When and how was that determined? And could the state lower district grades or withhold improvement funding if the districts are found guilty of grade inflation?
"While we should all celebrate increases in student achievement, particularly in civics, we must ensure the results are earned with integrity," the letter states.