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Key Pinellas schools make large FCAT gains

— The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test school grades released Friday show large gains for key Pinellas County schools.

Dunedin and Belleair elementaries, two of the county’s nine “turnaround” schools that received failing grades last year, advanced to C grades this year. School grades are calculated on the FCAT scores, though next year the tests will be replaced with the Florida Standards assessment.

Of the 92 Pinellas elementary and middle schools assessed, 25 schools received an A grade, 15 received a B, 28 received a C and 20 were considered D schools. Eleven schools received a failing grade.

“While it’s clear we still have room for improvement and a lot of work yet to do, we have much to celebrate,” Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego said in a written statement. “As we transition from one accountability system to another, we will not lose sight of the importance of staying focused on each student, every day of the year, not just on testing days.”

In all, 19 schools showed improvement. Oldsmar Elementary went from a C to an A. Mildred Helms Elementary went from a D to a C.

Meanwhile, 47 schools maintained their grades from last year and 26 declined.

Florida’s “safety net” rule prevents any school from dropping more than one letter grade in an academic year even if a sharp decline in student performance were to occur.

Schools that fell from D to F grades this year were turnaround schools High Point and Ponce de Leon, as well as Lakewood and New Heights elementaries and Johns Hopkins Middle School.

A handful of schools in the county have had failing grades for two or more years in a row: Pinellas Park, Campbell Park, Melrose, Maximo, Fairmount Park elementaries as well as Azalea Middle, all of which are turnaround schools.

Schools that maintained an A grade were: Bauder Elementary, Bay Vista Fundamental, Joseph L. Carwise Middle, Clearwater Fundamental, Perkins Elementary, Highland Lakes Elementary, Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary, Madeira Beach Fundamental, Oakhurst Elementary, Ozona Elementary, Curtis Fundamental, Pasadena Fundamental, Thurgood Marshall Fundamental, Tarpon Springs Fundamental, Cypress Woods Elementary, Sutherland Elementary and Lake St. George Elementary.

Pinellas FCAT scores fell so far below expectations this year that the district has asked the state to investigate the cause behind the drop. State officials have said that it may have been due to a tougher prompt on the writing exam than in previous years.

The prompts in the coming years are likely to be tougher.

Some educators warn that the new state standards, which are considered more rigorous, will cause scores statewide to plummet, and hoped to persuade state lawmakers to hold off on using it to calculate school grades for three years. Lawmakers instead opted for a one-year delay. State education officials said they think the new assessment will factor into school grades in a similar manner as the FCAT.

“It maintains the focus on student performance, student achievement and student learning gains in those assessed subjects,” said Juan Copa, deputy commissioner of accountability, research and measurement at the Florida Department of Education. “We are moving to a new assessment where we will still be assessing students in mathematics and English language and arts.”

Those new standards are considered more rigorous, and there is concern that they may factor negatively into school grades in subsequent years, but the education department says next year’s new grading system will be more simple and transparent.

“Its focus on student achievement and gains will help ensure a fair accountability system that helps measure student knowledge of the new Florida Standards,” Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said in a prepared statement.

Across Florida, the number of schools earning an A grade increased by 7 percent. The number of F schools also increased — there are now 178, up from 106 last year.

Education department officials attribute the jump in F schools to several factors, including that more schools received a grade this year. Before 2013, schools that tested 10 or fewer students did not receive a grade, but that threshold since has increased to 30.

The state also assigns grades to high schools, but typically does not release them until December.

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Tribune reporter Erin Kourkounis contributed to this report.

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