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Pasco school officials expect bad news on annual grades

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LAND 'O LAKES - The Pasco County school district - and other districts statewide - are bracing for bad news later this month when the Florida Department of Education releases the annual school grades.The concern: Tougher accountability standards mean even schools that show improvement could see a drop in their letter grades.MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough's superintendent, told the state Board of Education last month that FCAT 2.0 data indicates her district could have as many as 20 F schools. Pasco, a smaller district, could end up with three or four, Assistant Superintendent Amelia Van Name Larson said this week.Larson said she's all for accountability, but Florida is in the middle of a transition to the new Common Core State Standards, while at the same time assessing students based on the old Florida standards reflected in FCAT 2.0. The state needs to be careful it doesn't hurt the very students it is trying to help, she said."People are scared to lose ground on accountability," Larson said. "But is it really accountability if the systems are not aligning? I don't believe it is."Pasco has had just two F schools since Florida began issuing the grades more than 10 years ago. They were Anclote High School, which bounced back the next year to an A, and Gulf Highlands Elementary School, which improved to a C a year later.Pasco has had several D schools, though, including Lacoochee Elementary, which anticipates its third D in a row this year and had to submit an improvement plan to the state. Last week, the school board installed a new principal at Lacoochee and much of the teaching staff has also changed. Pasco is pouring a lot of resources into Lacoochee and Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning has vowed to turn it around.Pasco had several options for improvement plans at Lacoochee, but opted for one that kept the district in the driver's seat."It's our responsibility," Larson said. "They are our kids."Larson shares the concerns about the grading system, especially at the elementary school level. High school grades have additional factors that come into play beyond test scores - such as graduation rates - but for elementary schools the FCAT 2.0 scores drive the results. "If we are going to have a grading system, we need to rethink how we do it," Larson said.Elia wasn't the only superintendent to speak on the issue to the state Board of Education, which met in Tampa last month. Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade schools, also raised concerns, saying that if schools show increased academic performance simultaneous with plummeting grades, the public won't understand what is happening."The fact that yesterday's A is today's C and yesterday's C is today's D or F will be grossly misconstrued," Carvalho said.Board members agreed that communication could be key. Board member Kathleen Shanahan said it is a complicated message to convey."We have to tell people there is going to be a technical correction," Shanahan said. " 'There are going to be more C, D, F schools, but your kids are learning more.' And that's oxymoronic to a lot of people."Florida schools are headed toward what some refer to as an accountability cliff in part because state officials tweaked the system a year ago to avoid an earlier cliff. When data indicated too many students were scoring below proficiency on the 2012 FCAT 2.0 writing exam, the state lowered the proficiency level from a score of 4 to a 3. The state also decreed that no school could drop more than one letter grade, regardless of test results.Those two factors aren't in play this year. The writing proficiency score will be 3.5 and there is no limit on how many letter grades a school can drop.At state board Chairman Gary Chartrand's direction, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett created a task force that included superintendents to discuss possible adjustments that could improve the grade situation. Bennett is to make a recommendation to the state board at its July 16 meeting, but has given no indication he plans to make changes.Larson expects the state to stand firm with the grading system as is, plummeting grades or not."I think they are going to go with, 'whatever it is, it is,' " Larson said.Even with those concerns and the uncertainty that the transition to Common Core State Standards brings, Larson said she is excited about the coming school year.Since Browning was elected in November, the district has undergone numerous administrative changes as he instituted his reorganization plan. Now nearly all the pieces - and people - are in place to move forward.Pasco has more than 80 public schools that have been all over the place in terms of their ups and downs in standardized test results over the years. Larson is hoping to see more consistency and an overall improvement in the future. Efforts have begun to accomplish that, she said.District officials visited all 46 elementary schools and collected information from staff members who offered insight on what was going right and what was going wrong when it came to language arts instruction. "If you don't get input from people on the front lines it's not going to work," Larson said.The teachers expressed need for more flexible resources, more planning time and the importance of being able to differentiate among students, not all of whom learn the same way. They lamented that they are forced to use one reading program for all children, even when it's not working well for some, Larson said.Larson said the feedback also made it clear that the district needs to develop teacher leaders in each school, calling on principals to help identify those leaders.Those pegged as the leaders are undergoing training. Middle and high school teachers already had the training and this week it is the elementary school teachers' turn. Larson said each elementary school identified about six to 10 teacher leaders.

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