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Grading alternative schools

Florida's education bureaucracy is so consumed by its standards and formulas that it is flunking schools set up specifically to reach failing students. Leave it to John Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who is chairman of the House Choice and Innovation Committee, to demand a little common sense.

Stargel is pushing for a more reasonable method of measuring performance of the roughly 300 public schools in Florida that target students with academic or disciplinary problems. Now they are graded on a scale that punishes their admirable intent. They are failed because their students typically score low on the state's standardized tests, as though such results are a surprise to the state Department of Education.

Education Commissioner John Winn started applying the grades last year to all alternative schools, arguing that every student has to meet high standards. That's mostly political rhetoric, though. The school grade derived from those scores is not used to motivate students to excel but to punish teachers and administrators for poor work. In Stargel's county, Polk, two alternative charter schools were shut down last year because of failing grades. In Pinellas, the only two schools to receive F's last year were an alternative middle school and high school. A second round of F's could authorize students, who were assigned to the schools because of their problems, to attend any other school they choose. How much sense does that make?

"The concept here is that you've got an alternative school, where we've already identified struggling students, that we not measure them with the same yardstick as public schools," Stargel says. "We measure their progress by asking whether they are getting a year's worth of education in a year's time."

Under Stargel's plan, alternative schools would be assessed strictly by the extent to which their students have progressed academically each year. He says Winn has agreed to support the measure if the students' scores are also counted as part of the school they left. Winn, who seems incapable of trusting public school educators, wants to make sure principals of regular schools won't dispatch students to alternative schools as a means of inflating their own state-issued grade.

Stargel is merely trying to make sure the methodology of the A

+ Education Plan squares with the goals, but DOE is not an eager listener. Seven years after lawmakers passed the reform, Winn still tends to dismiss any criticism as an assault on the program itself. By what logic, though, would the state use low test scores as a reason to close schools created to serve students who have low test scores?

In a functioning DOE, common sense wouldn't require an act of the Legislature.

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