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Simulation shows school grades plummeting under possible new rules

Pasco principal Kimberly Poe had no illusions that her school's annual state grade would suffer under tougher FCAT passing scores.

But a simulation that showed Woodland Elementary School's A diving to a D under proposed new grading rules prompted Poe to fire off this email to her staff:

"I must admit that I wanted to vomit when I read this information, because I KNOW how hard we work here at Woodland, meeting our students' needs day in and day out," Poe wrote Wednesday.

The Florida Board of Education is set to consider on Tuesday changes to the way it grades the state's public schools. Along with a higher FCAT passing score and a more stringent definition of a high school graduate, the new rules could drive school grades down across the state.

The number of schools that would have received F's in 2011 if the new rules were in place would have risen from 38 to 268, while the number of A's would have declined from 1,636 to 1,048.

State officials caution that their calculations for student gains were not strong and schools are likely to improve on the revised FCAT tests this April.

But as word of the simulation seeped throughout the state, the results sparked strong reactions.The rules, according to the state's superintendents association, would force hundreds of schools into "needless failure."

Juan Triana, a father of twin daughters who attend Spring Hill Elementary in Hernando, said parents watch with frustration as ever-changing policies take their toll on teacher morale.

"As a parent, I'm not very pleased," Triana said. "They're doing their best and working hard to make students successful, and it seems like every year there is some new initiative. With these changes come very little support, and they're running ragged."

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, echoed the frustration and contended that the discussion is more political than educational.

"You have one set of standards and you work on it diligently and then the Board of Education changes the rules over and over again," he said,

That churn troubles leaders like Thomas Morrill, principal of Chamberlain High School in Tampa. The school earned its first A in 2011 after C's and two D's only to face the prospect once again of a grade decline.

"Getting that A, we were ecstatic," Morrill said. "It's about the students. Sometimes the politicians and the legislators forget that. It's like in football. Ten yards has always been 10 yards since the inception of the sport. You can't make it 12 yards, and then 14 yards."

Bonus money also comes with A grades. The Florida School Recognition program awards schools that earned an A or showed grade improvement about $70 per student. Schools that are rated F, meanwhile, get more oversight.

A grading formula change that burdens more public schools with failing grades is likely to enhance the attractiveness of school voucher programs that allow students to attend private schools, said Eric Baird, chairman of the Thurgood Marshall Fundamental school advisory council.

"I think it's bad for the whole state," he said.

Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia chided a proposal that would begin grading schools serving students with profound disabilities. In the simulation, all of Hillsborough's ESE centers would have been rated F.

"To put the letter F on the work that is done in centers like that is just unconscionable," Elia said. "I do not shirk accountability. We have consistently looked for the expectation in all our students and schools that they get better. But it has to be done in a fair and appropriate way."

The state also owes an explanation to the public of what is happening and why, Elia said.

"From last year to this year our students did not become dumb," she said. "They are improving."

State Board of Education vice chairman Roberto Martinez said he hopes to place such concerns in the context of the state's goal of increasing academic expectations.

"We have to be careful in making sure the policy we approve isn't counterproductive and doesn't have adverse, unintended consequences," Martinez said.

He said each line within the proposed rule change deserves individual attention.

"I want to avoid having the board look at this like a slate of proposals that has to be voted up or down" as one, Martinez said. "We need to be more sophisticated than that."

Regardless of the simulation results, Tampa Bay school leaders said they are trying to remain on task.

"We absolutely will not allow the proposed changes and most recent simulation to discourage us or distract us from the work we're doing to improve student achievement," said Pinellas superintendent John Stewart.

Principal Poe said her staff has taken several steps already to improve reading comprehension and thought processes.

"We get discouraged, but we can't remain focused on that for long," Poe said. "We are judged by that grade. Those who are in our schools on a daily basis know we do much more than that grade. . . . Our goal is to prove the state wrong."

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Tony Marrero and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

CORRECTION: The Pasco County school district would have 4 F schools under the new school grading simulation. A previous version of the attached chart stated 34 F schools.

Highlights of the school grade revisions

The Florida Board of Education is considering revisions to the state's public school grading formula that would incorporate changes mandated by lawmakers. Department of Education officials recommended additional alterations as part of a push to increase academic expectations.

• More special education and English-language learner students would be included in the school grade calculation.

• Schools would automatically receive an F if they do not have at least 25 percent of students scoring Level 3 or higher on the FCAT reading exam. The state's superintendents association has taken issue with many aspects of the proposal, including this one. "If the department wishes to emphasize reading proficiency then it should allocate a greater percentage of the school grade to that area, not introduce a 'trigger' that ignores a school's achievement in other areas," association president Ron Blocker wrote in a letter to state education officials.

• Schools would see their grade drop by one position if they do not see adequate gains in math performance among the lowest 25 percent of students. This has already been the case for reading gains.

• Schools would earn bonus points for improving the percentages of students moving into Levels 4 and 5 on the FCAT.

How Tampa Bay school districts might fare

Tampa Bay's four school districts would see the number of A schools drop from 200 to 118 and the number of F schools increase from 5 to 40, according to the DOE simulation. (Exceptional Student Education Centers would be graded for the first time.)


* Exceptional Student Education Centers would be graded for the first time under the proposed new rules.

Simulation shows school grades plummeting under possible new rules 02/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 8:33am]
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