Florida's A-F school grading system, respected and copied in other states, faces a credibility test here where it began.
For the second straight year, the state Board of Education is contemplating possible revisions to the grading calculation because of concerns that the test scores they're based on could make the schools look bad.
A year ago, board members lowered the FCAT writing passing score after learning that students fared poorly under stricter standards and school grades would likely suffer. This year, the board directed that a task force look into superintendents' concerns that a return to tougher policies threatened to drive up the number of F schools.
School grades are intended to be a consistent measure of how schools are performing. But as Florida has discovered over the years, the formula needs to be changed from time to time — either to raise standards or to account for glitches like the looming perception problem that gave rise to the task force.
The goal, board chairman Gary Chartrand said, is to make sure the system is accurate and valid, while maintaining high expectations. Time is short, as grades are due in July.
"It may be late, but it's not too late," Chartrand said, as he instructed Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to form a group to recommend any necessary fixes.
The task force meets Monday.
The stakes are high, said panel member Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent who questioned the impact of more than a dozen grading changes. If the public sees a disconnect between grades and performance, he said, it could sour perception of the entire system.
"I believe in accountability as key to systemic reform in public education," Carvalho said. "But accountability cannot exist as an entity unto itself. More and more, it has become this monstrous giant that is tweaked up every year and continues to change."
Bennett said he sees regular alterations, such as increasing expectations, as key to promoting higher achievement. School grades, he said, are a tool to drive that endeavor.
In working with the task force, then, Bennett said he will listen for ideas that keep that framework intact, while looking for a way to transition from Florida's current standards and tests to tougher new standards known as the Common Core.
"My intent going forward isn't simply to make schools look better," he said, declining to offer any judgment of the State Board's controversial 2012 decision to change the writing score. "My intent will be to find the right answer."
Michael Petrilli, editor of the reform-focused Education Next journal, urged caution as Florida moves ahead.
Purposeful grading formula adjustments to promote higher goals are one thing, he said. Rewrites on the fly to mitigate expected poor results are another.
"Tweaks are okay and inevitable," Petrilli said. "But major changes for political reasons can really hurt the credibility of the system."
Even if the grades are low, he suggested, Florida's best choice might be to simply explain why and move forward.
Matt DiCarlo, a senior fellow at the teacher union-affiliated Albert Shanker Institute, has long argued that Florida's school grading system does a poor job of measuring school effectiveness. What it measures, he contends, is how performance compares between schools with different demographic make-ups.
He also noted that Florida has revamped its grading methodology several times, making annual comparisons meaningless.
That doesn't mean the state shouldn't revise its rules, even if it causes frustration, DiCarlo said. "But changes should also be evaluated in terms of whether or not they improve the quality of measurement of a system. Balancing these priorities is often difficult."
DePaul University education professor Mike Klonsky, a critic of the education "reform" initiative, argued that a simplistic A-F grading system doesn't provide useful information about children's development as learners. He called the system arbitrary.
At one point, he noted, Gov. Jeb Bush used grades to show how well Florida schools were performing while his brother, President George W. Bush, implemented the federal "adequate yearly progress" model that suggested many of Florida's A-rated schools were failing.
If school grades have a value, he said, "they are easy to comprehend and they're good for selling real estate."
He suggested the state should move away from school grading and high-stakes testing, and instead adopt a system that focuses on more authentic measures of student learning.
Getting rid of school grades, even temporarily, is not in Bennett's plans.
"I think it's a very bad political decision," he said. "Florida students have done very well, and our accountability system has been one of the catalysts for that. … We have to utilize this situation as an opportunity to continue that."
Education officials in other states are watching.
Both Utah and Maine, for instance, are poised to implement school grading models at the encouragement of Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education. So Florida's ups and downs keenly interest leaders there.
Judy Park, Utah's associate superintendent for accountability, said she's interested in seeing how Florida resolves its issues. Utah is looking at enacting school grades primarily for information purposes, without many of the related interventions that Florida has, such as financial incentives for schools.
"Utah is in a great position to prove whether or not school grading (alone) will make a difference," Park said.
Carvalho said he was "pleasantly surprised" that the state board agreed to convene the task force to consider the problems he and other superintendents found. Among his many criticisms, Carvalho argued that the state did not explore the impact on school grades of changes such as computerized testing, new exams and higher passing scores, together with fluctuating calculations.
"The state went too far too fast" in its effort to raise the bar, he said. "If this was Olympic diving, you are raising the height of the platform but you are making the depth of the pool much shallower. The risk is much greater."
He said he hoped the state board will take a closer look at the impacts, while also considering the validity of the tests. He also called for clear public communication about how new grades compare to past ones, and for a long-range plan to move Florida accountability forward.
"I know there are some people … that simply want to get it done," Carvalho said. "More than just getting it done is getting it done right."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.