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Column: Florida's school grading system has lost all credibility

Florida's school grades are not statistically valid. They're not true. They are not measuring what is "real." Folks across the state dialed into last week's Board of Education meeting to hear those troubling words for themselves. It seems that Florida's motive for arbitrarily moving the bar was sticking districts with some 262 F schools.

State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett proposed a "safety net" to prevent any school from falling more than one letter grade. The state Board of Education approved the idea 4-3, sparing 154 schools and leaving 108 on the table.

For 15 years, Florida politicians sold the A-through-F school grading system as the education reform gold standard for the nation. An expensive, unpiloted system was built on viewing our neighborhood schools filled with our sweet children as A's or F's. School grades are the single high-stakes arbiter of property values, teacher pay, school funding and school quality. Dozens of states across the nation have been lobbied heavily to adopt Florida's system as part of the "reform agenda."

As parents, we teach our children empathy for others and the importance of fair play. How do we tell our children that although their grades are improving, their school is an F? How do we explain that a school grade is not true but arbitrary? It was deeply disappointing to hear Board of Education members insist that it would be better to let the state's list of F schools balloon to 262 because those students need the "truth." Where's the truth in a statistically invalid system? How do we find "truth" with zero transparency? Will there ever be any truth when we need task forces and annual emergency meetings to flip the facts? Our children deserve so much better than this.

We could start by looking at the fact that the 800-point scale used to calculate school grades allows the loss of 80 points to drop an A school to a C or a C school to an F. If a child gets 10 percent of the answers wrong on a test, it doesn't cost him two letter grades. This arbitrary scale was set by the Board of Education years ago, and the board has the power to alter it at will.

Our governor-appointed Board of Education routinely uses its considerable power to shape outcomes. Who can forget the FCAT Writes disaster just last year, when student scores went from 1's to 5's in one phone call? Then there was the No Child Left Behind waiver crisis last summer that threatened to throw hundreds of schools into F status because of Florida's choice to record Exceptional Student Education and English Language Learners test scores in a punitive way. The solution to that self-induced drama was the first "safety net."

The sad part is that teachers and school leaders have for years warned politicians, the Board of Education and vendors that profit from the system that Florida's accountability system is a house of cards. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, politicians stick to the script, rigidly intent on hawking Florida's "good news." Such blind faith exposes the lie. Florida's school grading system cannot be a model of success on one hand while seeking to rapidly grow the number of F schools on the other.

Manufactured crisis is exhausting. Commissioner Bennett wisely proposed a solution to reduce the number of schools hurt by failed metrics, but it's a short-term fix to a deep problem. Florida's school grading system lost all credibility last week. It's time for the state to stop wasting our money tweaking a disaster and start showing some empathy for the real human beings who are the heart and soul of our schools.

Kathleen Oropeza is co-founder of fundeducationnow.org, a nonpartisan Florida-based education advocacy group working with concerned citizens/voters who demand that every child's constitutional right to a high-quality public education be fulfilled as stated in Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution.

Column: Florida's school grading system has lost all credibility 07/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 6:54pm]
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