1. The Education Gradebook

After a rough transition year, calls grow louder for Florida to rethink school accountability

Kurt Browning said that the entire evaluation system needs to be reviewed.
Kurt Browning said that the entire evaluation system needs to be reviewed.
Published Jan. 10, 2016

With two votes Wednesday, the State Board of Education put to bed a lengthy, heated debate over how difficult Florida's student testing and school grading formulas should be.

Board members made it harder to get a passing score on the tests, and easier for a school to earn an A, just weeks before students begin another round of Florida Standards Assessments.

But to many, they ignored a more fundamental problem: the growing lack of confidence in the 16-year-old education accountability system.

"We still contend that our accountability system needs to have another look-see," said Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning, echoing the state superintendents association's position. "We need to review it in total, not just pieces."

Groups promoting tougher standards expressed dismay after the board's vote, suggesting the outcome presents a too-rosy picture of student and school performance. Those who see the current model as "test and punish" were equally disappointed, saying the board stuck to the status quo rather than looking for ways to improve beyond "raising the bar."

Even board members acknowledged their effort was incomplete. Lacking learning gains data, they asked Stewart to restart the conversation in the summer, after students have completed their spring FSAs.

"New standards, a new assessment, rollout challenges, and an absence of learning gains all impact the results in ways that we can't predict," board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said. "It seems responsible for us to wait for a second set of more complete data … then step back and ask ourselves if our grading system is set correctly."

The question of whether school grading accomplishes its stated task of improving schools has long been a focal point of Florida education politics. It came into stark relief in 2013, though, when former education commissioner Tony Bennett — one of the nation's biggest promoters of accountability and grading — resigned his Florida post over a school grades scandal in his home state of Indiana.

More than ever before, supporters and critics alike suggested that Florida's model, which many states have tried to replicate, had become bloated and confusing. It changed so much every year that, to some, it had become unreliable and too easily manipulated.

They called for change, if not an outright end to the concept.

Since then, Florida has made changes.

It streamlined the grading formula. It eliminated the "safety net" that made it nearly impossible to know whether a school had received the grade it should have gotten.

But Florida also got new academic standards, new tests and new expectations for both students and teachers. And in their initial rollout, those things did not go well, keeping the spark of criticism blazing.

In that light, the board's latest efforts satisfied few.

On one side came the true believers who wanted more than the board delivered.

"By keeping the bar low, we are doing a disservice to the children of Florida," said Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds, who joined state business leaders in seeking higher passing scores and a tougher grading formula. "They kicked the can down the road, and I think that's unfortunate. Rip the Band-Aid off, and let's move forward."

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Suzette Lopez, a Miami parent and testing reform advocate, used similar imagery to express a completely different perspective. She agreed with superintendents that the board needed to consider revamping the system to refresh its relevance.

"I did not hear any action to the calls from the superintendents. That leads me to believe it's falling on deaf ears, and this will just go down as yet another Band-Aid on the accountability system," Lopez said. "They need to understand that there are not just consequences to the system, but to the people in that system."

It was those people, especially the children, who persuaded board members not to adopt proposals that would label more students and schools as failures.

"We don't grade schools to grade schools, or cut scores to cut scores. We do it to help kids," board member Tom Grady said. "Any school grade scale or model that arbitrarily stigmatizes kids, families, communities and their schools cannot help kids. "

But going any further, board members contended, would have exceeded their authority. State law requires a school grading formula, for instance, and that's why they set one rather than taking up a proposal to issue all schools an "incomplete" for 2015.

"I don't see any desire in the Legislature to change the criteria or to expand the criteria until we see the results after at least two years," observed board member John Padget. The board "followed legislative intent."

In other words, board Chairwoman Marva Johnson said, any system overhaul would fall in lawmakers' laps.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he did not anticipate a comprehensive rewrite of education policy in the 2016 session that begins Tuesday. No lawmaker has filed a bill asking for it, he noted, and neither the commissioner nor the governor has suggested it.

He acknowledged the superintendents' call, but suggested that they regularly have said they support accountability but don't like school grades.

"In a few months, we will get the next set of data," Legg said. "That board meeting was about the transition year. I think the Legislature could do more. But it would need to be a really diligent work product. I would not implement it in one year."

Fishman Lipsey and fellow board member Michael Olenick spoke during their meeting of looking for ways to include more factors than test scores when assessing a school's value.

Many observers were hopeful that such a conversation will occur, as a starting point to restoring balance to the system. For now, the concerns remain.

"I hope (they) will pursue a complete overhaul of the school grade system, eliminating the stakes and reducing the reliance on test scores," said Monroe County education advocate Sue Woltanski. She hoped for a new system that "reflects the quality of the education provided by the school and not the socioeconomic status of the students it serves."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.


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