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Florida education commissioner proposes plan to simplify school grading system

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart unveiled her plans to simply Florida’s complex school grading system on Tuesday.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart unveiled her plans to simply Florida’s complex school grading system on Tuesday.

TALLAHASSEE — For months, parents, principals and policymakers have lodged the same complaint: Florida's school grading system has become so complex, it is virtually meaningless.

On Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart unveiled her plans to simplify it.

Her proposal, up for consideration by the state Board of Education on Feb. 18, removes the triggers that automatically cause a school grade to drop. Among them: a rule requiring schools be docked one letter grade if less than 25 percent of students are reading on grade level.

Stewart also wants to strip SAT scores and certain graduation rates from the complex formula used to evaluate high schools.

Despite pressure from superintendents, Stewart is not recommending a temporary suspension of the school grading system as the state transitions to new standards and assessments. But under her proposal, schools would not face consequences for poor grades until the transition is complete in 2016.

Struggling schools would continue receiving support.

Stewart declined Times/Herald requests to be interviewed Tuesday.

Speaking to superintendents last week, she said her goal was to remove the factors that complicate school grades and return the focus to achievement and improvement. "It needs to be simpler so that everyone's confidence is back in the school grading system," she said.

The proposal won early praise from the Foundation for Florida's Future, the education think tank founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The commissioner's presentation is a thoughtful approach that maintains school accountability during this transition time and puts Florida on a path to have a simpler, more transparent, back-to-basics calculation," spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said. "We support returning to an accountability system that truly reflects student progress and gives principals and teachers clear goals to meet."

But some parent activists, including Kathleen Oropeza of the Orlando-based group Fund Education Now, said Stewart's suggestions do not go far enough.

"Everybody has acknowledged that this system is falling apart," Oropeza said. "What we need is a real break and an opportunity to design something that actually serves children."

Florida's A-F school grading system was created in 1999 to help parents compare public schools.

Schools that earn high grades are rewarded with extra funding. Failing grades can force staff turnover and even closure.

The formula has undergone significant changes since its inception.

In 2010, the state beefed up the high-school formula by adding new components, including graduation rates, participation and performance in accelerated classes, and scores on college entrance tests.

Other provisions were included requiring that schools be docked one letter grade for poor reading scores, or if their lowest-performing students did not make improvements.

Adding to the confusion, the state Board of Education instituted a "safety net" in 2012 to prevent school grades from dropping more than one letter in light of new, more challenging exams.

The steady stream of changes prompted former state Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan to complain in July that the state had "overcomplicated" the system.

The pressure has not subsided, especially as the state education department transitions to new education benchmarks and standardized tests.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, recently said his priorities for the upcoming legislative session include "restoring trust and integrity into the school grading system."

But Joy Frank of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents said state education officials have other problems to tackle before issuing school grades.

The organization has called for a three-year suspension of school grades.

"Right now, our concern is having a valid and reliable assessment," Frank said, noting that the Education Department has not chosen an exam to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests. "We don't know whether students will be prepared, or whether they will have the technology needed to take the tests. Until then, we should not report the results."

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.

Florida education commissioner proposes plan to simplify school grading system 02/11/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 6:17pm]

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