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Gradebook

Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Jeb Bush's foundation opposes school grade inflation

16

July

Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future this morning has publicly released its letter to the Florida Board of Education opposing what it has termed school "grade inflation" for another year.

Commissioner Tony Bennett has recommended the board continue to shield schools from multiple letter grade drops, in the face of superintendent complaints that the state imposed too many variables to the system at the same time. A year ago, the board took steps to buffer schools from several changes in the standards, such as increased FCAT writing scores.

"In one sense, the superintendents are victims of their own success. They have become so adept at producing A’s and B’s that these grades have become something of an entitlement," foundation executive director Patricia Levesque writes. "The parents and public have grown to expect them and elected officials and superintendents are under pressure not to disappoint. This creates incentives to make school grades less about student achievement and more about ensuring a comfortable distribution of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s.

"If we succumb to that, we politicize the grading formula, lose credibility and, worst of all, undermine a reform that is a fundamental element of Florida’s education transformation."

Levesque, who has promoted Florida's school grading model to other states, argues that the state should let the grades should fall where they fall, and not allow for any further changes to the system as the department makes a transition to a new Common Core-based accountability system. She also supported the creation of an advisory committee to help with that changeover. Read on for her full letter to the board, which meets at 10 a.m. to consider the commissioner's proposal.

Dear Members of the State Board of Education:

Complaints about school grades date back to 1999, the first year the policy went into effect.

We were the first state to pull back the curtain on mass failure and that was not a popular thing to do. More schools earned D’s and F’s than A’s and B’s. Not surprisingly, some blamed the messenger, complaining that the grading formula wasn’t fair and did not reflect the quality of schools.

But we held firm, the schools rose to the challenge and the quality of education in Florida increased dramatically. Failing schools became A and B schools, even in the poorest neighborhoods.

Since then we have periodically increased grading standards. That puts pressure on school districts but is necessary to spur student achievement. The challenge is to do this in a way that is coherent, transparent and -- while challenging -- also realistic.

This process has played out at an accelerated pace the past few years. We have switched to FCAT 2.0 and adopted end-of-course exams. We are preparing to transition to the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15. And the state has had to further adjust its accountability system to obtain a waiver from federal law.

A number of school superintendents say the pace of change is not realistic and has overwhelmed their ability to adapt to it. Not surprisingly, they argue that as a result the grading formula will not reflect the true quality of their schools. And so they are seeking relief.

One major complaint is that grades will go down even as academic achievement goes up. When you dig into the reading and math results of this year’s FCAT, however, that’s a wobbly premise as scores were a disappointment. They basically were stagnant compared to last year.  And when scores are stagnant, students are not making gains, schools will not earn credit for gains and school grades will drop.  When this occurs it is not the fault of the grading scale, it is a result of low performance, not an encouraging sign as we prepare for Common Core. We have to do much better.

In one sense, the superintendents are victims of their own success. They have become so adept at producing A’s and B’s that these grades have become something of an entitlement. The parents and public have grown to expect them and elected officials and superintendents are under pressure not to disappoint. This creates incentives to make school grades less about student achievement and more about ensuring a comfortable distribution of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s.

If we succumb to that, we politicize the grading formula, lose credibility and, worst of all, undermine a reform that is a fundamental element of Florida’s education transformation.

We therefore appreciate the very difficult position Education Commissioner Tony Bennett now finds himself. He must consider the concerns of the superintendents while ensuring that the grading formula remains rigorous and drives student progress.

Obviously he won’t make everybody happy, including us. We believe his ESE solution is reasonable and support it. But we remain opposed to the recommendation to continue the supposed “safety net’’ that prevents a school from dropping more than one letter grade in a year.

Our concern is twofold.

The first is based on principle. If a school earns a D, but receives a C, who is helped by this grade inflation? It certainly won’t be the students because the districts will be under less pressure to direct resources and assistance to those who need it.

The second is based on political practicality. The longer you have a policy like this in place, the harder it will be to wean the districts off it. There may well be pressure to extend the safety net again with the increased expectations that will be coming with the Common Core assessments.

Education isn’t getting any easier.

But Commissioner Bennett is correct when he says a smooth glide path to Common Core is the priority. If he believes this helps get us there, we respect his judgment.

His recommendations are contained in an emergency rule, however, and as such, expire 90 days after enacted. Our suggestion is to now act proactively to ensure we don’t end up in this situation again. You can do that by laying out clear expectations going forward and by creating a planning process for the Common Core transition.

We begin by asking the Florida Board of Education to not adopt the supposed “safety net” or designate a clear termination date for it. We believe two years is long enough.

We also support a moratorium on further changes to the current grading formula through the 2014-15 school year. This creates a period of stability, allowing the districts to absorb these recent changes and to prepare for the new standards that will accompany Common Core. This approach also means there will be no backtracking when it comes to advancing the lowest quartile of students, no ratcheting back of reading, math and writing standards, and no lessening the importance of End of Course assessments.

Putting these issues to rest allows us to focus on designing an accountability system for Common Core that is a simpler, more transparent, back-to-basics calculation that truly reflects progress in the classroom, and gives principals and teachers clear goals to meet.

Lastly, we support the idea proposed by some superintendents of forming a task force, chaired by Commissioner Bennett, reflecting all stakeholders, to begin work on a clearer, back to basics school grading formula on a timeline aligned with common core implementation. It is time to get our focus back to advancing student achievement.

Thank you for this chance to comment.

Sincerely, Patricia Levesque

[Last modified: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 9:14am]

    

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