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Florida's school grading system merits a D

When it comes to grading public schools, the state's system deserves a D.

And it's only a couple of points above a failing grade.

The grading system continues to serve as one of the state's most misleading measures of educational success. Schools with good grades still have failing students. Schools with bad grades still have successful students.

In 2009, 60 percent of Hillsborough's lowest-performing students were at A or B-rated schools. I don't think that number has significantly changed. Given the increase of A and B-rated high schools after the release of grades last week, it may be higher.

To its credit, issuing grades initially drew needed attention to the overwhelming number of students who didn't perform well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

Many of those schools here in Hillsborough County and across the state had been neglected or needed special assistance. School districts marshaled resources and set up programs to attract top administrators and teachers.

However, the grading system stigmatized those schools. Being labeled an "F school" or a "D school" gave a black eye to students, and it devalued the effort made by teachers. Even worse, low grades often drove away the parents who had the time and means to truly help a school.

Fast forward to last week and you find the district touting the fact that 93 percent of its high schools earned an A or B. I'm happy for the administrators and students who obviously made progress and are rightfully joyous about shedding the stigma.

However, the celebration risks covering up the fact that there is tremendous room for improvement. At one B-rated high school in the county, only 40 percent of the students met the FCAT reading standard, only 66 percent met the math standard and only 39 percent met the science standard.

Granted, those numbers reflect significant improvement over the last five years, and are just part of the statistical data the state uses to determine a grade. But where I'm from, those marks could never earn a B.

The state will raise test standards and adopt other factors next year that will make achieving an A or B more difficult, but isn't it time to abandon the whole idea of letter grades for schools? It just gives students another obstacle to overcome.

My son graduated from Armwood last year and during his tenure, the state labeled Armwood either a C or D school. Last semester, he made the dean's list at Florida State. At Leto High, the only high school rated a C in the latest ranking, teachers celebrate the success of Jennifer Ruiz, who recently earned a scholarship to Harvard.

In the end, the state needs a system that promotes accountability, identifies problems and encourages improvement without using grades like a scarlet letter.

At the same time, it needs a system that rewards true success instead of a school's ability to jump through hoops or cook the numbers.

In the interim, don't choose your child's school solely on the grade. Go to the school, get a tour and measure the character of the principal, a far better indicator because a school's success begins with who leads the effort. If the principal can't inspire you, he or she can't inspire the teachers or students.

Judge for yourself and ask the questions that pertain to your child's specific education needs. For now, it's the only meaningful way to grade a school.

That's all I'm saying.

Florida's school grading system merits a D

01/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 3:30am]
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