Big changes are coming to the way Florida grades its high schools.
The FCAT isn't going away, but its influence in the school grading formula is being cut in half. Meanwhile, a wide range of other factors are being added to the mix, including graduation rates and the number of students taking rigorous Advanced Placement exams.
Many educators are cheering the change, which passed the Legislature with unanimous support last week and is expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Crist. But it remains to be seen whether a broader picture means a rosier one, as many school officials hope.
Many high schools that struggle with Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores struggle with graduation rates and AP tests, too. For some of them, maybe even many of them, the new formula could be a more complicated way of coming to the same conclusion.
"Those who believe this legislation becomes a way to raise school grades without raising real performance will be disappointed," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the senate education committee and sponsored the bill.
Led by former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida began grading schools in 1999 as a way to prod schools into boosting student performance. Nine years later, the program remains controversial and unpopular with many teachers and parents.
The present formula is based solely on how well students do on the FCAT, which measures skill in reading, writing, math and, in some grades, science.
"Any time you look to grade a school based on one test, it diminishes a lot of the things that are going on in the school," said Harry Brown, Pinellas' deputy superintendent for curriculum and operations. "What this legislation does is give a more accurate picture."
The new system will be in place for the 2009-10 school year.
Under it, half of a school's grade will hinge on the FCAT. The other half will be based on graduation rates and a suite of other standardized tests, including AP and International Baccalaureate tests, industry certification exams and, eventually, end-of-course exams.
The new formula will consider not only how many students pass those exams, but also how many take them. It will factor in progress from year to year. And it will put added weight on the graduation rate of at-risk students, who are defined in the bill as those who fail the FCAT in reading and math in eighth grade.
Though overshadowed by budget cuts, the legislation won support from all sides of the accountability debate. House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a vocal critic of the FCAT, signed on, as did Patricia Levesque, who directs Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.
Some supporters saw it as a way to dilute the FCAT; others, a way to raise the bar and make schools even more accountable.
"I'm not sure it'll be an easier assessment," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union. But "it'll be a better assessment."
The new formula has yet to be crafted, so it's impossible to tell whether Florida high schools will make out better or worse than they have in the past. Gaetz said he refused to consider models that would gauge the potential difference based on variations in how the new formula was drawn up.
"I'm not interested in a formula that will make high schools look better or worse," he said. "Our goal is to open the doors to as many classrooms as we can to find out what's going on and measure it."
Details are likely to emerge in coming months. The Department of Education expects to hold rule-making workshops this summer and plans to nail down a formula by late fall.
Already, many educators are getting their hopes up.
"I believe it will help our schools, I really do," said Bob Hielman, principal at Riverview High School in Hillsborough County. "You're heading toward reality when you add the other components."
Riverview earned an A from the state last year, up from a C the year before.
Across the bay, Boca Ciega High earned its fifth D in a row last year. But principal Paula Nelson was just as optimistic.
Last year, 32 percent of Boca Ciega's ninth- and 10th-graders were reading at grade level. But the school has tripled enrollment in many AP classes, Nelson said. And its graduation rate jumped from 62 percent to 70 percent last year.
"They're taking challenging classes," Nelson said of her students. "They're meeting with great success."
Brown, the deputy superintendent in Pinellas, said the new grading formula will force districts to beef up academic rigor. Right now the number of AP courses, for example, can vary widely from school to school.
"It will mean more resources will have to go toward ensuring that students have access to more Advanced Placement classes," he said. "And we'll have to encourage more students to take accelerated classes."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at Winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.