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Florida House approves new school grading formula

TALLHASSEE — Responding to a flurry of complaints from parents last year, the Florida House voted Wednesday to simplify the school grading formula.

In a separate bill, the lower chamber approved changes to middle-school policies, and voted to strip the words "Common Core" from some sections of state law.

The school grades bill (SB 1642) had already won approval in the Senate, and is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida has graded its public schools since 1999. The grades determine which top-performing schools get performance bonuses, and which struggling schools must replace employees or face closure.

The proposal considered Wednesday grew out of parent concerns that the grading formula had become so complicated that it was virtually meaningless.

In February, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart recommended eliminating the bonus points schools can earn, as well as the so-called triggers that automatically cause a school grade to drop. She also pushed to remove some measures of college readiness from the formula for grading high schools.

Parents, teachers and school district leaders had a different idea: They called for the grading system to be suspended while Florida transitions to new education standards, state tests and teacher evaluations.

Stewart declined to place the accountability system on hold. But she said schools would not face consequences for poor academic performance in 2014-15.

Lawmakers used Stewart's proposal as the basis of the proposed legislation. It won unanimous support in the Senate.

In the lower chamber Wednesday, House K-12 Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Adkins called the revised formula a more transparent approach to grading schools.

"We focus on the basics: English, language arts, math, science and social studies," said Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican. "We've taken away the gotchas."

But Democrats raised objections. They pointed out that the state Department of Education had only recently finalized the new education benchmarks and chosen an accompanying assessment.

"We should not be moving forward with a system that punishes poverty and celebrates affluence as we see in the school grading system until we can, at a minimum, ensure that the vehicle for processing those grades — the assessment — is fully vetted," said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.

The bill passed in a 76-42 vote.

The action disappointed statewide teachers union President Andy Ford, who renewed his call for a longer transition time.

"We need to get it right, not get it done fast," he said.

But Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, said lawmakers had taken important steps.

"Fifteen years ago, A-F school grading shined a light on the state of education in Florida's schools, engaged parents and community leaders and ensured struggling students did not fall through the cracks," she said. "The increases in student learning prove what gets measured gets done, but in recent years, the grading calculation has lost its focus on what matters most: students learning and mastering fundamental skills."

The House also approved a separate education proposal (SB 850) that would require public schools to identify middle school students at risk of dropping out, and expand anti-hazing provisions to the middle grades.

"This bill will save lives," Adkins said. "This bill will increase our graduation rate in Florida."

The proposal serves another function: it strikes out a handful of references to the Common Core State Standards from statute.

Florida is one of 45 states that had approved the national standards. But when the Common Core drew fire from conservative parent groups, the Florida Board of Education tweaked the benchmarks and renamed them the Florida Standards.

Lawmakers have been working to remove the controversial term from law — a gesture some critics consider meaningless because the Florida Standards are practically the same as the Common Core State Standards.

SB 850 had already been approved in the Senate. Because the House made changes, the upper chamber must now vote on the new language.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida House approves new school grading formula 04/30/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 7:57pm]
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