Without a last-minute safety net, Central Florida's annual school report card would have been much uglier, with 13 more F-rated schools — including a first-ever in Seminole County — and two dozen more D's.
But an "emergency" action by the state 10 days before the grade release in July changed things. A vote by the State Board of Education shielded 76 local elementary and middle schools from the toughest provisions of Florida's grading system and left them with ratings higher than they earned, according to an Orlando Sentinel review of state data.
Some call that state-sanctioned grade inflation.
Midway Elementary in Seminole, for example, ended up with an F but was issued a D for 2013. If it had been an F, the school near Sanford would have been an unsettling first for the region's highest-performing school district.
The local schools were among 549 statewide helped when the State Board approved a "safety net" for elementary and middle school grades, continuing a provision from last year that said schools could not fall more than one letter grade from the previous year.
That vote divided the board and exposed a deep concern across the state about Florida's 15-year-old school-grading system.
"You get a school grade that no one knows what it means anymore," said Juhan Mixon, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators
Now the state seems poised in October to extend the rule again, so it would cover high-school grades to be issued at the end of the year and, possibly, all 2014 grades.
Opponents of the practice worry that giving schools grades higher than what was really earned masks academic problems.
But others say the current grading system has become unfairly harsh, leading to grades that do not accurately reflect academic achievement. They want the safety net to remain until a new grading system can be devised. That is scheduled to happen by 2015.
Florida's school-grading system began in 1999 as a way to hold schools accountable for student performance. It was a first-in-the-nation effort and has since been copied by more than a dozen other states.
The grading calculations are based mostly on students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. By 2015, however, Florida plans to retire most FCAT exams, replace them with a new series of standardized tests and then redo the school-grading system.
Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order last week that seemed to endorse extending the safety net until the new grading system is rolled out. He said he wanted to provide "stability" and "clarity" until then and urged the State Board to adopt any needed "emergency rules" to that end.
Such a move would please many school administrators, who felt whiplashed by the changes adopted in 2012 and put fully in place this year. Those changes added 22 new items to the grading formula and required a six-page explanation from the Florida Department of Education.
The changes meant that, in some cases, students did better on some tests, but their schools' grades fell. Even with the safety net in place, fewer schools earned A's in 2013 than last year, and a record number earned F's.
"It's not in any way, shape or form that we're afraid of accountability," said Lisa Suggs, principal of Ventura Elementary in Orange County.
"It's just we need to know where the goal line is so we can score," she added. "You can't do it midstream."
Ventura was given a C this year but would have received a D if not for the State Board's action.
The D might have alarmed some parents. But Suggs said she and her teachers could have explained that poor grade, noting the impact of stricter performance requirements for children learning English. Such students make up more than 40 percent of Ventura's enrollment.