TALLAHASSEE — After a week of controversy gave way to an emotional public meeting, the state Board of Education on Tuesday softened plans to revamp the school grading formula.
Superintendents, teachers and parent groups had slammed several proposed changes to the formula, including the so-called proficiency trigger, which would have slapped schools with an automatic F if fewer than 25 percent of students were reading at grade level.
State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson backed off that part of the plan Tuesday.
Under the revised plan, schools that don't hit the 25 percent mark will instead be docked one letter grade. What's more, the trigger will not kick in until the 2012-13 school year starts.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she agreed with Robinson's decision to do away with the stricter version of the proficiency trigger.
"To say one calculation should ever move a school into the F area is ridiculous, especially with the kind of accountability system we have," she said.
The board did approve one of the most divisive provisions of the new formula: a plan to more fully incorporate students with disabilities and those who are learning English into the grade calculation. In years past, the formula has considered only whether those students were making improvements, and not whether they were at grade level.
But there was a caveat: Board members directed Robinson to convene a task force of educators, experts and parents to draw up details of the plan — and ensure it is both necessary and sound.
The board approved the new grading formula in a unanimous vote. They will now move toward implementing it.
"It's a move in the right direction," said Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who had fought for many of the changes. "In the process, we moved to a more reasonable policy that serves all students."
It was not clear how the formula as adopted would impact school grades.
Under the original proposal, hundreds of Florida schools would have dipped into the failing range, according to state estimates.
Robinson said the revised formula could also make a difference: "I don't pretend this won't have an impact on the grades."
But he said the changes would strengthen Florida's school accountability system.
The state Board of Education needed to tweak the school grading formula this year — both to incorporate new state exams and to qualify for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The proposed changes raised the standards, placed a greater emphasis on reading and awarded extra points to students achieving at the highest levels. But some of the early ideas met strong resistance.
Dozens of parents, teachers, superintendents and education experts made the trek to Tallahassee on Tuesday to speak at the board meeting.
Vice chairman Roberto Martinez urged his colleagues to slow the process by a month and collect more input from stakeholders. But other members of the board insisted on voting.
At times, the hours-long public hearing grew emotional.
Superintendents, for example, argued that students with disabilities and those just learning English should not factor into the grading formula the same way as typical children.
"Schools with 30, 40, 50 or 60 percent of students who are not native English speakers are going to be at a disadvantage in terms of this as a performance metric," Carvalho said. "That does not mean there is not quality instruction taking place in that school."
Others made the case for measuring all children equally.
Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, said she spoke on behalf of her 3-year-old son, Luke, who has special needs.
"Nothing in the current state accountability ever makes sure that Luke will learn how to read, because his learning how to read is not part of our school grading system," she said.
The foundation, created by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1994, supports the tougher grading formula and increased accountability measures.
In the end, board members said that fully incorporating students learning English and with disabilities was the right thing to do — and a necessary step for Florida to receive the No Child Left Behind waiver.
"They should be included," board member Gary Chartrand said. "How we go about doing that is the question."
Chartrand said he looked forward to hearing the task force's recommendations next month.
Some parents also criticized the state for including specialized schools for disabled children in simulations of the new grading system. Robinson said those schools would not be graded.
After the meeting, Martinez said the changes made to the grading formula were "generally positive."
"It was thoughtful to delay some of them until next year," he said. "That will give us the opportunity to see the data for the remainder of this year and really evaluate it."
Miami Herald staff writer Laura Isensee contributed to this report.