Last week, school grades for Florida's elementary and middle schools were released, highlighting the significant academic progress our children have achieved and the large amount of work still ahead of us. School grades, which are based upon FCAT results, are absolutely vital in our efforts to improve the quality of our education system, and they provide parents, educators and other stakeholders with an unrestrained view of each school's successes and shortcomings.
Through school grades, parents become more informed about educational choices; the strategies of high performing schools can be studied and duplicated; and, resources and support can be shifted to schools that need the most help.
It goes without saying that if the results are not accurate, then none of these beneficial uses matter. This is the precise reason that I incorporated the services of an independent testing auditor in each FCAT administration since I became Florida's commissioner of education. It is also the exact reason that, after listening to the concerns of several school district superintendents, I retained the services of two additional independent testing experts to audit this year's FCAT results to determine if any problems or anomalies existed. Each of these experts is nationally renowned, and each one possesses a wealth of knowledge that made them uniquely qualified to perform this work.
The goals of these additional audits were simple: review the concerns of our school districts, analyze the results with those concerns in mind and report the findings when ready.
We began the process by soliciting feedback from school districts throughout the state, asking them to provide any analysis or specific questions they wanted addressed. We then compiled that information, asked districts to confirm that the questions adequately captured their concerns, and provided the questions to the auditors to help focus their work and direct their analysis. To ensure the process remained entirely transparent, we posted all of this information on our website — fldoe.org/SchoolGrades.asp — and included other relevant information about this issue.
Once preliminary information was available, we took the extra step of inviting several superintendents and district assessment coordinators to Tallahassee to review the information and speak with the auditors. I wanted this to be a very open forum for the attendees where they could ask direct questions and get direct answers. The conclusion of the meeting was very positive, giving the auditors additional information to review and incorporate as they continued their analysis.
After three weeks of intense review, the auditors finalized their work and presented their reports. The gist of their findings was that the FCAT is a sound assessment system and the results it produced were both accurate and reliable. They did note that some variations in the results were seen from year to year, but none of those variations were anomalous or beyond acceptable and historical ranges, which was a primary concern of our school districts. In fact, there were past years that actually showed greater variations than we saw this year. Based on the conclusion of these independent experts, I determined there was no reason to further delay my statutory obligation to publish school grades.
Although the results showed some of the declines that many school districts were anticipating, they also brought good news. Across the state we saw two-thirds of our elementary schools either maintain or increase their grade.
We also have some standout schools that showed spectacular performance, illustrating successes that should be celebrated and studied as we move into the new school year. For example, McDonald Elementary School in Hillsborough County moved from a "C" to an "A," and Tyrone Middle School in Pinellas County improved from a "C" to a "B." We also saw many school districts maintain their overall high performing status, including Hillsborough which retained its "A" grade and Pinellas which retained its "B."
Those are just a few of the many successes that occurred this year in the surrounding St. Petersburg/Tampa area, with many more taking place locally and throughout the state. These successes demonstrate that great things are still happening in Florida schools and the leadership in our school districts remains strong. I am looking forward to the new school year, not just for the promise it holds for our children but for the chance to work hand in hand with each superintendent to push the progress of our schools to the next level.
Dr. Eric J. Smith is Florida's commissioner of education.