There were no tears of joy this year at Miami Northwestern Senior High. There were no pompons and cheerleaders at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale.
Last year, both inner-city schools announced — with much fanfare — their first-ever “A” grades from the state. This year, that top mark was lost when Florida released grades for high schools on Thursday.
Both schools were knocked down to a B.
“We feel we’re an A school. We’re going to work to improve until that grade is up,” said Northwestern Principal Wallace Aristide.
The slide was expected — engineered, some argue — after the state drastically changed the way it grades schools. The harder grading scale meant that schools with the same number of academic “points” as last year sometimes got lower letter grades this time. Even some schools that had improved their overall point total saw their letter grade drop.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie explained it this way: “This is like we’re playing a basketball game and we’ve been playing for years and the rim is at 10 feet. And all of a sudden, we come in for the championship game and somehow they’ve raised the height of the rim to 11.”
“That doesn’t mean my playing ability’s reduced,” he said. “The game just got a little tougher.”
Across the state, 71 percent of schools earned an A or a B in 2013-2014. That was down from last year, when 78 percent earned top grades.
The rate in Miami-Dade County also was down significantly: 74 percent of high schools earned an A or a B this year, compared with 86 percent last year. In Broward, A or B-rated schools dropped sharply, from 91 percent to 76 percent.
Still, there also were no F traditional schools in Dade or Broward for the fourth year in a row.
And though grades are down across the state, graduation rates are up slightly, according to results also released Thursday. The statewide rate was up a fraction of a percentage point: 76.1 percent. In Miami-Dade, the rate stayed flat at 76.6 percent. Excluding charter schools, the graduation rate bumps up to 80.1 percent.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho cautioned against making comparisons from year to year, citing the tougher statewide grading scale automatically adopted after a historic number of high schools made top marks last year.
“We don’t fret too much over grades, especially in a time when everything keeps changing,” Carvalho said. “When you compare how well you did this year versus last year when everything’s changed, it’s hardly a fair question.”
The changes will continue next year as the state abandons the controversial FCAT for a brand new test that is also expected to drag down school grades. However, penalties for poor performance — which can range from reassigning staff to shutting down a school — will be put on hold for a year as schools adjust.
This year, there were some key changes in Florida’s school grading standards.
In addition to raising the minimum scores for letter grades, a new end-of-course exam in history also counted. So did the test scores of first-year students who are learning English — of which there are almost 13,000 in Miami-Dade alone. Schools also got fewer points this year for the number of students enrolled in advanced courses.
“Look out for the changing criteria,” warned William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. “They’ve done this over a number of years, and they’ve done this to say, ‘Things are terrible and we need reforms.’ Or after reforms were put in, they'd change it to say reforms were successful.”
On a conference call with reporters, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart defended the grading system.
“I think there’s much to celebrate here,” she said. “As our high schools have improved over time, then it is important for us to consider that we want to continue moving the bar up, and have done that. And our schools respond to that.”
She pointed to 55 high schools out of the 455 that were graded in Florida that managed to improve their grades this year. Only three schools in Dade and one in Broward pulled up their grade. One of those schools was Miami Palmetto Senior High, which went from a B to an A.
Principal Allison Harley quickly made a school-wide announcement and students have been high-fiving her in the hallway, she said.
“When we dropped to the B, the staff and the students took it personally. So it just reinvigorates them,” Harley said. “It’s a sense of pride for them. You go to the best. Their school is the best.”
That’s part of the allure of grades, said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group Fund Education Now. Grades are a quick way to pass judgment on schools when the reality is much more complicated.
Determining what makes a passing or failing grade is often subjective, not based on science, Oropeza said. And school grades — as with individual test scores — correlate strongly with wealth and poverty.
“Please show me an F school in an affluent neighborhood,” Oropeza said. “It’s disturbing that we are in a place right now where the goal is to label schools instead of to truly help the kids inside the schools.”
But as controversial as letter grades are, Runcie, the Broward superintendent, said they still impact public perception — particularly for people who are unfamiliar with their local schools. Complicated details, such as the impact of the ever-changing grading scale, can get overlooked, he said.
“To be honest,” he said, “I believe that most people take these letter grades at face value.”