TAMPA - Mirroring a statewide slump, Hillsborough County slipped significantly in the number of schools that earned an A grade, recorded a handful of F schools, and generally faltered as Florida schools toughened their expectations of what students should learn.
Grades for elementary, middle and combination schools not graded as high schools were released Friday amid and angst as administrators warned that more rigorous testing and the ongoing conversion to the nationwide Common Core standards in 2014-15 would hit schools in the grade column.
Hillsborough had 84 A schools last year, or 40 percent of the schools in the district. This year, there are 61 A schools, or 28 percent of all schools.
Meanwhile, the number of F schools jumped from two to five.
And because of a "safety net" declaration that no school could drop more than one grade, 33 Hillsborough schools were spared a free-fall, at least 11 of which would have been added to the F category.
Hillsborough officials saw the proverbial silver lining, stating that about half of the county's 44 middle schools showed improvement and 40 of 142 elementary schools improved their scores.
"This is a year of transition and that has contributed to some misunderstandings and confusion for educators, parents and the public," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said in a statement released by the district. "The big story is that at a time when it is more difficult to raise your school grade, due to hard work and intense focus, many of our schools raised their grade."
The letter grades, which can affect everything from school funding to a neighborhood's real estate appeal, were quickly spun to support the positions of both those who support and oppose Florida's school grading system. The concept was ushered in with Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ Plan for Education in 1999.
"The number-one thing I want to continue to hit is that this year's school grades are indicative of the fact that Florida has continued to raise standards for Florida's children," said Tony Bennett, the state's commissioner of education. "As a result of that, we have seen a decline in school grades, as we have in the past when we've raised standards."
The state teacher's union remained critical.
"The constantly changing measures (the Department of Education) uses in grading schools renders them meaningless as a comparison of school progress," said Andy Ford, head of the Florida Education Association, in a statement. "Lower school grades don't reflect a drop in achievement by students; they are the result of numerous changes in the grading system ... This system is flawed and does not reflect rising student achievement and the dedicated and caring efforts by our public school teachers and other school employees."
The Hillsborough schools that received an F grade are Sheehy Elementary, Jennings Middle, Potter Elementary, Washington Elementary and Woodmont Charter.
Pasco County saw its number of D schools more than double while the number of A and B schools dropped. The district avoided an F at any school, helped by the safety-net policy limiting a slide to one letter grade. In all, 20 Pasco schools earned an A, eight a B, 24 a C and 14 a D. A year ago, the district had 22 A schools, 17 B schools, 21 C schools and six D schools.
"Florida is seeing widespread declines in performance," Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning said in a prepared statement. "Although we want our students to do well and the FCAT 2.0 is one important learning indicator, we need to keep in mind that our schools are transitioning to new standards and we are stuck with an old assessment system that is not aligned to these new standards."
In Hillsborough, Elia singled out the district's two single-gender schools for steady improvement. The Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy leapfrogged from a C grade to an A, while the Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy jumped from a D to a B.
Karen French, principal at Ferrell, said teachers and administrators there constantly inform students of school data, and they track their personal progress. "It's about the culture that we've established within the school," French said. "We have an extreme academic focus."
Statewide, the number of A schools dropped from 48 percent to 29 percent, while the number of F schools increased from 2 percent to 4 percent.
Districts and schools have incorporated a number of changes in student testing. More are in the pipeline, and Bennett noted Friday that a "similar phenomenon" should be expected when 2014 test scores are reported.
Dozens of schools' grades are still pending as administrators compile data. Grades for the state's high schools are expected to be released in December.