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Education commissioner favors 'safety net' to keep school grades from tanking

From left, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett talks about FCAT score improvement at Starkey Elementary School in Seminole in May as Pinellas superintendent Michael Grego, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning and Starkey Elementary principal Audrey Chaffin look on at the school.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

From left, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett talks about FCAT score improvement at Starkey Elementary School in Seminole in May as Pinellas superintendent Michael Grego, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning and Starkey Elementary principal Audrey Chaffin look on at the school.

At the urging of superintendents, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett recommended Friday that the state continue to cushion schools against dramatic drops in their grades, even when test scores merit a lower mark.

His proposal comes at the 11th hour — school grades are expected to be released later this month — and despite his statement earlier this month that the practice could be misleading to the public.

The "safety net" went into effect last year to stem the fallout from a fast push to tougher standards, some of which weren't fully explained to school districts. It is set to expire this year, unless the State Board of Education agrees with Bennett that it should be extended.

The board will consider Bennett's proposal Tuesday. Board members also will consider a second recommendation from the commissioner not to use the test scores of students at special education centers when calculating the grades of their "home" schools.

In a letter to the board, Bennett said his new support for the safety net provision wasn't intended to "soften the blow of higher standards or to reduce the number of failing schools." Instead he was trying to minimize changes as Florida moves away from the FCAT to the more rigorous and complex Common Core standards by the 2014-15 school year.

Bennett called the transition the "biggest issue confronting our schools."

It isn't clear yet what effect the safety net would have on this year's school grades. Last year, about 388 schools — or about 15 percent of 2,588 schools graded — benefited. Of those, 57 were in the Tampa Bay area. St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School, for instance, earned a C last year, but would have dropped from a B to an F.

West Tampa Elementary would have fallen from an A to an F; instead it earned a B because of the safety net.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools, said she wasn't sure how much it would help her schools. She said Bennett was "responsive" to the concerns, but she still hoped to see a clear plan for the transition from the FCAT.

"This should not be considered a quick fix," she said.

Elia was part of a task force assembled by the state board to look into superintendents' concerns. Superintendents had argued that it would be confusing to the public, and potentially damaging to Florida's nationally known accountability system, if school grades dropped again this year despite stable test scores.

Last year, rapid changes forced the state Department of Education to wage a public relations battle after dramatic drops in test scores, particularly on the FCAT writing test, raised questions. A last-minute move by the state board to change the passing score on the exam was strongly criticized as a way to pad school grades.

Although Bennett's proposal gives superintendents much of what they asked for last week, some of them said Friday that it won't cure deeper problems with Florida's grading system.

Mike Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, said he feared credibility in the system already had been lessened because of a combination of rapid changes — more than 30 in two years — and the increasing complexity of the grading formula.

"If we don't have a belief in our school grading system then we've lost a great deal of our accountability system," he said.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, also a member of the task force, said Friday that the state needs to avoid the "annual exercise" of making last-minute adjustments to the grading formula, which could confuse or alienate the public.

"People don't subscribe to what they don't understand," he said.

When the task force presented its recommendations earlier this month, Bennett made no promises he would act on them. He ultimately moved forward with two — the safety net and the special education scores — but rejected a proposal to provide more flexibility in writing scores. Carvalho and Grego said they had hoped he would act on the writing scores, too, while Elia said she wasn't for it.

"That affects my schools, quite honestly, but I think we need to have better writers," she said.

On special education centers, Bennett proposed that the state board not apply test scores of students to their "home" schools in the 2013-14 school year. For this year, he recommended that the state work it out retroactively during the process for appealing school grades.

Carvalho said he thought the state could find a better approach rather than hit special education centers with the "scarlet letter" of a bad grade. Elia said Bennett's proposal would only affect students who always attended a center. In Hillsborough, however, district officials typically assign a special needs student to a regular school and then, if it doesn't work, move to the more restrictive special education center.

"We shouldn't be penalized (for that)," she said.

Grego said superintendents support accountability in schools, but the grading system has gotten "out of control." He said adjustments to the high school grading formula in recent years had been positive — adding graduation rates and other factors to test scores. He said the state should take another pass at the grades for elementary and middle schools, too.

"It's time to re-examine what used to be a very simple grading mechanism in our schools," he said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Education commissioner favors 'safety net' to keep school grades from tanking 07/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 10:24pm]
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