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After a year of hurdles, Florida's 2015 school grades are coming. Will anyone care?

Participants in a three-day Education Accountability Summit in Clearwater in 2013 listed the strengths of Florida's school grading system as the state began its transition to new standards. The grading system -- and the transition -- would later come under attack after problems in 2015 with the new state test, the Florida Standards Assessments. [SCOTT KEELER    |    Times]
Participants in a three-day Education Accountability Summit in Clearwater in 2013 listed the strengths of Florida's school grading system as the state began its transition to new standards. The grading system -- and the transition -- would later come under attack after problems in 2015 with the new state test, the Florida Standards Assessments. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 7, 2016

Florida schools expect to get their 2015 state grades as early as Tuesday, and Sgt. Paul R. Smith Middle School principal JoAnn Johnson has a good feeling.

Her school, located in Citrus Park, is projected to earn an A after just missing a year earlier.

"We opened our school (in August) with the theme 'Moving On Up to the A Side,' " Johnson said. "Once we know for sure, we will celebrate."

The grade, after all, memorializes the hard work that students and teachers put forth, even in the face of shifting academic standards, new tests and technology troubles, she said.

"If the state says we're an A, we're an A," Johnson reasoned. "How the public reads that is how we will be read."

There lies the question: How will people react after a year when Florida's nationally known and often-copied school grading system took such a beating?

A consultant branded the tests on which grades are based as lacking "the normal rigor and standardization." The state's superintendents said they, and the public, had lost confidence in the system. They called for grades to be suspended, or for the state to give out "incompletes" instead.

Parents, teachers and school district leaders contended too much had changed to make the 2015 grades credible.

The state's switch from FCAT to Florida Standards Assessments makes it impossible to determine learning gains from one year to the next, a key component of the grading model, they said. Problems with the computer testing, and questions about the exams' validity, cast further doubts on their value.

Even State Board of Education members cautioned against reading too much into the results, while still approving new grading rules and authorizing the grades' release last month.

"The scores are a baseline," board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said via email.

Within a few months, she noted, the state will have 2016 data that will allow for growth to be considered. "I'd encourage parents to weigh those results more heavily."

Still, the 2015 grades are coming. And it hasn't gone unnoticed that they'll arrive a month into the second semester of the new school year, just weeks before students begin testing again.

That limits their usefulness to many in the schools.

"At this point in the year, you can't let it dictate and drive what you are doing," said Lacoochee Elementary principal Latoya Jordan, who expects her rural Pasco County school to receive an F. "There is nothing at all those grades can do for us."

Lacoochee's staff, which endured an overhaul in 2013 after persistently low performance on state tests, could not afford to wait for school grades to come out to tackle student and teacher needs, Jordan said.

"When we look at multiple data sources, we are seeing huge improvement," she said. "It's very unfortunate that this one measure is used to determine how your school is doing. Change takes time."

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Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego said he looked at the state's December simulated grade report, which shouldn't change much in the final version, primarily to see if schools made progress despite the changes. He saw an increase in A's and B's, a dip in D's and F's.

"We're moving in the right direction," Grego said. "A lot of other districts had a decrease of A's and B's, the larger ones."

The district also is using the underlying performance data as a base to build upon.

"This is more of a journey," Grego said. "It's not a single letter grade."

He and other Florida superintendents have said they don't want too much attention paid to the grades, whether A's or F's.

"Those results won't really give a true picture of what has taken place in our schools," said longtime Hillsborough County School Board member Doretha Edgecomb. "This has been a year of trial and error."

Even Johnson, principal of Hillsborough's Sgt. Smith Middle, acknowledged that any cheering at her school will be tempered. An A will validate everyone's effort, she said. "But we still have work to do. Take whatever blessings you get, accept those and move on."

Parents are paying attention.

Some want nothing to do with state tests or school grades, and they've become an increasingly vocal presence at board meetings and legislative hearings.

But others take them seriously.

"You still want to make sure the school your child attends has an A rating," said Mari Blank, a Wesley Chapel mom who has led several schools' PTA groups. "I think it's very important."

Not every parent has the time to visit schools or interview teachers and administrators, Blank said. The grades can be a key way for them to gauge a school's success, she suggested.

Noting such perceptions exist, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning admitted that, whether you like grades or not, "you can't run from them."

Perhaps, though, schools and their communities can take them as part of the normal routine when they arrive, rather than getting all hyped up.

Grego sounded hopeful that the release of 2015 grades might start that trend.

"I think this is not going to be a big news day," he said. "Put grades aside. How are the kids doing? That's how we're handling it."

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