Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Column: Florida's plan for school accountability might be the most equitable for everyone

Our state education leaders don't want to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of minorities, low-income kids and other disadvantaged groups — not by federal standards anyway. Yet Florida's alternative plan for accountability just might be the most equitable for everyone.

Let me explain. The basic concept of school accountability is at the heart of many of our state and federal education laws. Unfortunately, schools haven't always delivered, especially for low-income students, students with disabilities, and black and brown kids (like mine). Studies show schools with greater numbers of these students tend to get the least experienced and least effective teachers. They also tend to have the worst school buildings and fewer resources in classrooms.

That is essentially why the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, exists. It aims to ensure students who have traditionally gotten the short end of the stick get the same opportunities for a great education as other kids.

Florida is required to send in an education plan by Sept. 18 that tells Uncle Sam how we're going to prevent students who are poor, minorities or disabled from slipping through the cracks. Part of that plan has to explain how the progress of each of these groups of students will factor into school grades. But Florida is asking for a pass on that. Instead of factoring in race, income, disability, etc., Florida wants to look at the lowest-performing 25 percent of students at each school and factor their progress into school grades, regardless of race or income or disability.

Civil rights groups in Florida and across the country have flipped out. They wrote letters chastising the Sunshine State over the plan, and they tried to discourage other states from following suit. They argue that it will mask the performance of individual groups of students.

Yet the truth is Florida still tracks each of those groups separately and reports their progress. The state just doesn't want to factor the progress of those individual groups directly into school grades.

Despite their criticisms, civil rights groups never made it clear how tracking the bottom 25 percent of kids in each school will put low-income students, minorities or students with disabilities at a disadvantage. If any student from one of those groups is struggling, they're accounted for under Florida's plan. If students from any of those groups are doing better than the bottom 25 percent, then how can anyone argue they still need more attention?

This plan has been in place for several years, and it is moving Florida in the right direction. By most measures, our students are performing within the top 10 states and by some metrics often rank first or second.

For example, Florida's low-income fourth-graders are the highest-performing low-income students in the country. And in 2013, Florida was the only state to reduce the gap between white and black fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and math. Fourth-graders with disabilities have also increased their reading skills by 16 percent since 2002.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is supposed to help all students succeed in school, but especially students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-income homes. While there has been some progress, serving these groups of students is still a major challenge today.

Florida's plan wouldn't explicitly factor these students into its accountability system, but they are still accounted for simply because many from these groups tend to fall into the lowest-performing 25 percent of students at a school. And if the day comes (and I literally pray that it does) when students in these groups no longer make up the bulk of the lowest-performing students, I think Florida, if it gets its way and works the plan, will be in the best position to help all students who are not performing up to grade level — regardless of race, income or disability.

Lane Wright lives in Tallahassee and is a father of three, former press secretary for Gov. Rick Scott and current editor for Education Post, a national education nonprofit working to elevate the voices of parents and students.

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