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Many Florida teachers too lenient with grading, business group report says

Records show students’ classroom grades are better than their state test results. Local educators say it’s an age-old issue they’re working to address.

A recently released report from the Florida Council of 100 paints a bleak picture of teenagers' readiness for life after high school.

Using three years' worth of pre-pandemic data, the report, titled Rigor Gap, indicates that students' grades in the key courses of Algebra I and sophomore language arts are much better than their performance on state year-end exams in those subjects.

The report, released in September, concludes that many teachers are too lenient in their grading and contends this is harmful for students in the long run. The Florida Council of 100 is a nonprofit, statewide group of business leaders focused on economic growth.

For the report, researchers determined that 72 percent of students who did not pass the state English test earned a grade of C or higher in their class, while 55 percent of those who didn’t pass the state algebra assessment received a C or higher in class.

“If many students earn course grades that are higher than their performance on the corresponding (end of course exam) would predict, it could be evidence that a portion of teachers and administrative leaders are not holding students accountable to the standards, making them less prepared for success at the postsecondary level or in the workplace,” the authors wrote.

The report did not include data for individual districts or schools.

State education commissioner Richard Corcoran pointed to these findings as a basis for encouraging schools to push students harder to achieve high expectations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated gaps in student achievement, so it is imperative that all students — especially low-income students, students with special needs, English language learners, and other struggling students — are given the supports and honest learning feedback to achieve their individualized educational dreams,” Corcoran said after the report was published.

Academic leaders at Tampa Bay area school districts were less impressed with the document. They said it offered little new insight into a well-known concern.

“It definitely points out things are that are more or less obvious and part of the continuing narrative when it comes to grades and outcomes,” said Lea Mitchell, director of Pasco County’s leading and learning department. “It summarizes a topic but doesn’t offer the ‘now what.’”

Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent of teaching and learning for Pinellas County, said this conversation is decades old, and schools have been tracking the issue and working on solutions. And it means more than just preparing students for tests, he said.

Pinellas schools have begun work to better identify students who have the potential to benefit from Advanced Placement and other accelerated courses, Hendrick noted as one example. They’re also helping teens earn industry certifications and other workforce skills, among other approaches targeting their preparedness for life after graduation.

Hendrick said the district has taken a closer look at the “more seminal work” of the Opportunity Myth study performed by TNTP, the national education organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project. The group went to five diverse school districts, observed hundreds class lessons, looked at thousands of assignments and work samples, and surveyed students.

Among its conclusions: “Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them — the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.”

The Pasco district adopted that paper’s recommendations as its guide a year ago.

Related: Students are doing their work, but schools are making it too easy, report says

It calls for strong instruction, high expectations, grade-level assignments and meaningful, relevant work.

“Those are four things we believe are actions that reduce the rigor gap that exists everywhere," Mitchell said.

At the same time, she noted, society is not quick to accept changes that could speed along improvements. Attempts to revise grading models away from A-F scores to something more detailed and explanatory, with added opportunities to demonstrate knowledge, regularly are batted down by adults who prefer the simpler letter system, for example.

Sometimes parents understand and say they want to see their children master the material, but the kids are more determined to get the grades that let them participate in other activities. Maybe the colleges they want to attend don’t recognize the grading changes offered by the schools.

Many schools further allow students to “behave their way to a good grade,” a practice that can carry access and equity concerns for the children who can’t afford what might be asked of them. And that does not reflect what they know, either, Mitchell said.

All these factors, and more, need to be taken into account when working to overcome the disconnect between achievement and course results, Mitchell suggested.

The Council of 100 report might help identify where some of these things are taking place, specifically in Florida, she and Hendrick agreed. But to them, it did little else.

“It’s not useless,” Mitchell said. “It’s just obvious.”