Local leaders take issue with state proposal to simplify school grades

School grades wield extraordinary influence over the perception and operation of schools across Florida. An A can cause a celebration, while a scarlet F can lead to a school closing. And while many agree that repeated tweaks to the grading system have created a flawed formula, local education officials said Wednesday that a state proposal to fix it falls short.

"It's better than what it was. Is it what we need? I don't think so," said Amelia Larson, Pasco County's assistant superintendent for student achievement.

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart unveiled a plan Tuesday that would remove the triggers that cause a school grade to automatically drop. She also suggested removing SAT scores, Advanced Placement performance and certain graduation rates from the complex formulas used to grade high schools.

The state's local superintendents had been pressuring Stewart to suspend the school grading system as districts adjust to new education standards. Instead, she has proposed keeping the system in place but allowing schools to avoid consequences for poor grades until 2016.

Eight Tampa Bay area schools are currently undergoing a severe state turnaround process triggered by years of failing grades.

Stewart's simplified school grading plan, as well as proposed changes to the standards, will be considered Feb. 18 at a meeting of the State Board of Education.

In Pasco, Larson said she did not see much consideration for the superintendents' recommendations in the state's plan. She remained frustrated that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, administered once a year, still was such a strong factor in school grades.

Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia also said she felt local leaders hadn't been heard. After an education summit convened by Gov. Rick Scott in August, she said she thought the state would consult principals, administrators and other school officials. In her estimation, that didn't happen.

The revised grading formula, Elia said, seems to remove some incentives school districts now have for challenging students and helping struggling students earn their diplomas.

No longer will a school's five-year graduation rate be considered. "And that's a big issue," she said.

Under the old formula, schools were rewarded for reaching out to students who were just shy of the required credits to graduate. "That has to be very carefully considered, because in some districts — not Hillsborough — schools might discourage that student from coming back."

Similarly, Elia said she feared some districts — again, not Hillsborough — will back away from the Advanced Placement program if, as proposed, AP participation is no longer calculated in the school grade.

Hillsborough for years has enrolled as many students in AP as possible, even if they had a slim chance of earning college credit through the exam, to expose them to college-level work.

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said he believes the state has good intentions, but questioned the validity of trying to grade schools when the state is still tweaking its new standards and has yet to choose the tests that will take the FCAT's place.

"That's our concern," he said. "We're not trying to stop (school grading), just slow it down so it didn't harm kids."

Grego, like many superintendents in Florida, has supported the more nuanced approach to high school grades, which go far beyond FCAT scores. Because measures like AP scores aren't available until the summer, high school grades are released months after grades for elementary and middle schools. Now the state wants to align the release of school grades, something Grego is cautious about.

"I'd rather have a good solid high school accountability system than say, here, we have all the grades at the same time," he said.

Elia also emphasized that a complicated grading system, while confusing, could be for the better. "If you put in components, specifically to give rewards to districts and schools for challenging students, then this has been done for a good reason," she said. "Just because it's simple does not mean it's the right thing to do."

As for not giving schools consequences but still giving them grades? The state might see that as a solution during the transition, but Elia said local leaders would not.

"My job is to support and encourage and work with the schools," she said. "If I have an F school, I certainly have to take action."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

Local leaders take issue with state proposal to simplify school grades 02/12/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 10:32pm]

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