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School grading is student development guideline

School grades are getting a lot of attention in Florida. Why is there a need for grading schools? Is it something that will improve our schools or harm them?

To answer the question about why we are grading schools, we have to look at the history of education over the past century. Our history shows that America's schools have never performed as we now want them to. It is not that our schools are worse than they once were. Actually, they are better than they ever have been. Graduation rates have risen steadily. Illiteracy has virtually been eliminated (though many do not read well), and more people than ever have completed four years of college.

Critics of education say too few children today develop the academic skills they need and too many children leave school without having developed the personal skills, attitudes and habits of mind that will equip them for life in the 21st century. They are correct in their assessment.

Schools were designed to ensure basic literacy for all students and to have high academic standards for a relatively small group: those preparing for a college education. Education has met that goal, but what the schools were designed to do is no longer serving the needs of American society.

The larger goal of society today has not been met: a system of education that provides an "elite" education for nearly every child. In the world today, if the United States is to be competitive and maintain its standard of living, our industries must be restructured in ways that improve productivity through mental effort rather than physical effort. Industry must have a strong, broad supply of knowledge workers (people who are capable of using their minds well) if we are to fully use the power of knowledge.

In this Information Age, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of knowledge that is available. Our educational system must prepare our students for the orderly use of this information. They must be able to use, create and evaluate knowledge that is supplied by others. If students cannot develop the critical thinking skills necessary to process this information, we will lose the competitive edge we have developed in the marketplace.

School curricula have changed from teaching basic skills to teaching critical thinking skills (ability to make decisions based on information presented rather than just recall facts and understand current information) and personal skills, as well as basic skills.

Employers now want employees to be able to work at a higher level than ever before. They want individuals to take apart information, classify, predict or draw conclusions (analysis), put prior knowledge into a product plan or proposal that is new (synthesis), or judge, rate, rank or defend information (evaluation).

State governments have yielded to commerce and are requiring accountability from schools for student performance. What better way to show accountability in a form that everyone understands than school grades? Is there a better way?

The public needs to understand what school grades mean. The school grade is made up of two factors: academic scores and school performance criteria. The FCAT scores in reading and math and the Florida Writes scores are used for the academic criteria. School performance criteria is based on attendance, dropout rate, out-of-school suspensions and how the school compares to the state averages for those criteria.

First, it needs to be understood that the scores are not an average, but rather the lowest score a school receives on any academic criterion, with the school performance criteria being used as an indicator for a possible higher rating. A school that receives a D in one academic test score, say reading, will have an overall school score D, even if the other scores were sufficient to allow it to have an A rating.

Second, the highest level academic achievement possible is a B. It is only when the school performance indicators of attendance, dropout rate, etc., are better than the state averages that a school can attain an A. If the school misses one academic test score by .01 percent, the highest score it can receive is a C.

How can we improve our school scores? We have been doing a good job of teaching basic skills, as indicated by our High School Competency Test scores last fall. We were the highest in the state, with more than 90 percent of our students passing the test.

How could our high schools do so well last fall but then be only average this spring? Because the tests covered different skills. One tested basic skills and one tested critical thinking skills. We are in the fourth year of a five-year process of changing our entire curriculum from basic skills to critical thinking skills as we align with the state curriculum. This will not only help our students do better on the test, but it also will develop skills their future employers so badly want.

Critical thinking also requires us to develop personal skills in our students. Collaboration and teamwork are an important part of the classroom of the future. Not only does cooperative learning develop important personal skills needed for the workplace, but it creates an educational setting of sharing, where students working in teams can learn to analyze, synthesize and evaluate in a setting similar to a workplace.

The mission of Citrus County schools is to "educate all students through relevant curriculum and experiences for life in an ever-changing world." School grades are a means of showing we are fulfilling that mission. We will be meeting the required state educational goals for our children, but focusing only on the school grade will not serve the best interests of our young people. A good school system must surpass the grading system mandated by the state. It must meet the needs of all students and the needs of the community.

_ Pete Kelly is superintendent of Citrus County schools. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.