State again stirs up unease by ranking schools

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The St. John’s County School system is number one in a newly publicized education ranking from the Florida Department of Education, reports the News Service of Florida.

It’s been an “A”-rated district for eight years. Meanwhile the Leon County School system, which includes Tallahassee – has also been an “A” district for the same amount of time. However it is at number 24 on the state’s measuring scale.

And some of the poorest districts, like Gadsden, Franklin, Hamilton, DeSoto, Jefferson and Madison, are at the very bottom of the list.

The state on Monday released a ranking scale that rates school districts from highest-to-lowest. But the rankings are coming under fire from school district superintendents who say it’s not a fair way to look at how well students are doing.

Okaloosa County School Superintendent Alexis Tibbetts said she’s concerned about the message the new rankings may send, especially for the districts at the bottom end of the scale.

Those counties tend to be poorer, or have a greater numbers of disabled and minority students, or those for whom English is a second language. Some of them have all of those factors. She cites studies done by the federal government over the last decade as a part of the “No Child Left Behind” system, which classifies groups of students into subgroups.

“And those subgroups of English-language learners, students with disabilities, minorities, and low- socioeconomic status are the four subgroups that have the lowest performance in school,” she said. “And certain districts have a higher demographic that fall into those four subgroups…. The fact still remains that kids in poverty, our English language learners, our minorities and students with disabilities don’t perform as well as other students.”

The numerical ranking is based on a district’s total points on the FCAT, the standardized test all Florida public school students take. Districts are awarded one point for each percent of students who score on grade level or higher on the FCAT and make annual learning gains, according to the department. The total is the sum of the percent of students scoring at Level 3 or higher for FCAT Reading, Mathematics, and Science; scoring at Level 4 or higher on the FCAT Writing essay; the percent of students who made learning gains in reading and mathematics; and the percent of the students in the lowest quartile who made learning gains in reading and math, a measurement intended to measure how the district is doing in helping its worst students improve.

Many of the districts at the top – St. Johns, Santa Rosa, Martin and Sarasota counties, the top four – all have large numbers of students who are socioeconomically fairly well off.

Near the bottom end is Jefferson County. The small, rural school district east of Tallahassee has had a history of both financial and academic problems. Two years ago it was running a financial deficit and paychecks were bouncing. It was also an F-rated district according to the state. But in the last few years, it has gotten its finances in order, boosted its test scores and moved its district grade to a C.

It established science and math-based career academies at its schools to get more students certified in fields like nursing and ready to enter the workforce. It also has more than 130 disabled students out of a total school population of 1,029. It’s ranked as number 66 out of 67 counties in the state for education performance.

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson acknowledges that some school districts have serious social and economic factors that weigh heavily on their ability to perform.

“…In no way are we saying that they are the bottom districts,” Robinson said about the lowest-performing districts in a pre-taped video posted to the Department of Education’s website. “What we’ll do now is see how districts will move from year to year…and have a conversation about what we can do as citizens to support our public school system and support reform and innovation across the area.”

In a conference call with reporters, Robinson added, “What I’d hate to do is people try to use poverty and socio-economic status alone as a reason why these students can’t achieve. That would go against 10 years’ worth of work that Florida’s put in place to take our subgroups and move them higher.”

School district officials have questioned the timing and the purpose behind the rankings. Some say it could become political fodder.

“Ranking school districts by performance allows taxpayers to see their investment in education at work,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement Monday. “These rankings are a starting point and it is important to highlight the districts doing a good job.  These are not new rankings (they have been available since 2004), we are simply drawing attention to start a dialogue and to keep taxpayers informed.”

The state department of Education used existing information – all of which was already public – to rank the schools. Robinson says the new rating system simply puts the information in an “easy-to-understand” format.

Hillsborough County, which was the recipient of a major education grant a few years ago, and often highlighted as the state’s testing ground for education reform, shares the 38 spot with Osceola and Hernando. Counties.

Miami-Dade County is ranked at number 37. However, due to one tie and a three-way split in the number 31 and 34 positions, it could technically be ranked a few notches higher.

The top 5 districts under the ranking: St. Johns; Santa Rosa; Martin; Sarasota and Gilchrist.

For a full list, go to

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.