TAMPA — This year's school grades aren't out yet, but Florida educators are worried.
With changes to the grading formula and higher testing standards kicking in this year, superintendents warned State Board of Education members and Commissioner Tony Bennett on Tuesday that they will likely see a dramatic drop in school grades despite relatively steady student test performance compared with last year.
The disconnect, they said, will confuse the public and harm the credibility of education-reform efforts.
"We are very supportive of accountability across the board," Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia told board members. "We aren't shirking that and we'll take exactly what the data shows. But we have to make sure within the system of assessment that there is an appropriate accountability — not one that is not understandable."
If the state's grading formula stays the same, Hillsborough could have as many as 20 F-rated schools this year among its 142 elementaries, which is about 10 times the normal, Elia said.
Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho agreed, telling board members that no one has examined the cumulative impact of all of the impending changes. Last year, the state made 19 changes to the accountability system. Several more changes have been made this year, he said.
"If you have increased performance simultaneously with decreased letter grades, the public will not understand," Carvalho said.
The board responded by appointing a task force to look at how the state calculates school grades before the release of results, which is expected in July.
The task force, to be made up of school superintendents and other education experts, will dig into FCAT 2.0 and end-of-course test results to determine the validity and accuracy of the calculations. With the release of school grades looming, the panel will be assembled within a week.
As things stand, many changes will make it tougher to get a good grade this year, including:
• New achievement levels for FCAT 2.0 science as well as end-of-course exams in Biology 1 and geometry.
• The use of 3.5 as the passing score for FCAT writing, instead of 3 last year.
• The end of a provision that prevents schools from dropping more than one letter grade in a year.
• A requirement that schools must show the lowest-performing students are making progress in reading and math.
• The inclusion of test scores and learning gains from students who attend alternative schools.
Board of Education chairman Gary Chartrand said it's important that the system is careful, considerate and thoughtful when changing school-grade calculations.
"What we want to make sure is that the system that is governing accountability is the right system," he said.
"We can have all the accountability we want, and if nobody understands it, we're not going to have anybody advocating for it," board member Kathleen Shanahan said.
That's tough, Carvalho said.
"What parents will understand — what business leaders will understand — is not that kids achieved at higher levels and performed better," he said. "What they will understand is A, B, C, D, F and the fact that yesterday's A is today's C and yesterday's C is today's D or F."
Concerns over credibility have, at times, plagued Florida's accountability system. Last year, for example, the state was forced to adjust the standard on the FCAT writing test after too few students passed.
Elia said this year's projected drop in Hillsborough's school grades goes beyond more challenging standards in writing, science and other areas.
She said the problem appears to be centered around "unexplained and large" drops in learning-gain calculations, which come even as test scores are generally stable compared with last year. If left unchanged, the calculations will prompt "a negative move toward Fs" in Hillsborough schools, she said.
Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego agreed with his colleagues.
"We are also perceiving that our school grades will drop tremendously," he said.
Like Hillsborough, he said he had seen a precipitous drop from previous years in the ability of certain students to make learning gains.
"That sends up a red flag," he said.
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.