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Plan has "grading curve' for schools

Under the proposal for changing the way Florida assigns school grades, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist is being given broad authority to alter grades if too many schools excel _ or fail _ under the new system.

On the second to last page of the proposal, Crist is "authorized to apply a variance of up to 5 percent of the grading scale" to help achieve a "smoother transition from the previous grading system."

That means that if the results are dramatically different from previous year's results, Crist can tip the scale and fix it.

The provision underscores the fact that the state is entering uncharted territory with the new grading system. This is the first time the state has attempted to measure learning gains from one year to the next, and no one knows how schools will fare. The 5 percent variance is a safety valve in case the results are disturbingly different from the previous year.

"Right now, you don't know what it's going to look like," said Gerry Richardson, the Florida Department of Education's director of evaluation and reporting.

"We want it to be as close as we can to where schools left off," Richardson said. "We would like to maintain consistency in the system."

The creation of the 5 percent variance also puts Crist in a difficult position. If there are large numbers of A-rated schools, will Crist shift the scale upward to eliminate some _ a move that could make him very unpopular among those schools. And if there are too many F-rated schools, will he shift the scale downward to spare some schools the label as failures?

"It's a very challenging spot, to put it kindly," Crist said Tuesday. "But I think it's important to have that kind of flexibility built in. We don't want to shock the system either way" with an abundance or dearth of A's or F's.

Crist said that when the new round of school grades is ready, he will consult with people such as Gerry Richardson, and perhaps with Education Secretary Jim Horne and Gov. Jeb Bush, to decide whether he will need to exercise the 5 percent variance.

If he does shift the grading scale, might the state achieve consistency at the cost of credibility?

"It sounds very arbitrary; this 5 percent wiggle room sounds like a political solution to guard against an unacceptable result," said Marguerite Clarke, associate director of the Boston-based National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, which is conducting a national study of state testing.

Clarke said the variance provision sounded like "grading on the curve."

Crist disagreed.

"I don't think it's arbitrary," the Commissioner said. "I think it's smart. We don't want to shock the system."

Here's how the variance might work.

Under the proposed new grading system, schools have to accumulate a certain number of points (410) based on their test scores to get an A, a certain number (380) to get a B, and so on.

This year, 568 schools earned A's. Each was eligible for a share of the $76-million the state spent this year in school recognition money. If at the end of this school year too many schools get the 410 points needed to earn and A, that could be costly for the state because all would be eligible for school recognition money.

But if Crist adjusted the scale upward by 5 percent, suddenly schools would need a score of 430 to get an A. That would result in fewer A's.

Or if only a handful of schools earned the 410 points, Crist could shift the scale downward, and suddenly, only a 390 would be needed to get an A. The result? More A's.

It could work the same way if there are too many _ or too few _ F schools. The state had no schools earning F grades after last school year.

Since Florida started assigning letter grades to schools in 1999, schools generally have shown gradual improvement. The number of F schools has dropped; the number of A and B schools has increased.

The grading system has been revised a couple of times since it began in 1999. Each time critics allege that the improvement over time is as much a result of the changes to the grading procedure as it is due to changes in the classroom.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed new grading system next month.