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  1. Education

Summit's message to Gov. Scott: Change school grading system

Published Aug. 29, 2013

CLEARWATER — Legislators, business leaders, parents and school officials on Wednesday urged Gov. Rick Scott to overhaul Florida's school grading system, capping a three-day summit on the state's most pressing education issues.

Dozens of participants — including superintendents, state senators, the Teacher of the Year and a local parent — called for a more nuanced approach to the A-F labels that schools receive each year based primarily on standardized test scores.

"Schools don't teach; teachers teach. There's much more variation within a school than between schools," said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, which administers the state's tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students.

The conversation comes only weeks after the state made the controversial decision to pad this year's school grades and Tony Bennett resigned his post as Florida's education commissioner amid allegations that he improperly tampered with Indiana's school grading system when he was the chief there.

Although Scott called the summit, he did not attend it, instead enlisting Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to bring the group's suggestions back to Tallahassee.

Over the three days, attendees discussed the state's new education standards, teacher evaluations and how to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But school grades garnered the most detailed ideas for change.

Parents and school officials suggested it was too easy for a school to move up or down a grade due to normal variation in year-to-year performance.

Pinellas County parent Linda Kearschner said that, instead of a single letter grade, she'd rather see a report card listing how a school does in several areas. Others suggested tacking pluses and minuses on the grades to convey these small shifts.

Another "next step" produced by the summit: that Scott consider grading schools based on three years of test data instead of one, as is done when evaluating teachers based on students' exam performance.

Dorina Sackman — an Orlando educator who teaches students learning English, and Florida's current Teacher of the Year — said there might be a better way to recognize a school's effectiveness than with letter grades.

"The letter F itself has such a label to it. A couple superintendents have mentioned that F is a stigma. They are fearing that the F itself is making teachers leave," Sackman said.

Tuthill touched on the need to grade programs within schools. When he and his wife taught at St. Petersburg High School, one taught typical classes while the other taught in the school's International Baccalaureate program. "It was like two different worlds," he said.

Similarly, Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo draws students with extra needs because they are living in poverty, but also hosts a full-time gifted center for students throughout the county, Kearschner said. "We need to respond to the data underneath, not the label."

Attendees on Wednesday also produced recommendations for the governor on teacher evaluations, stressing the importance of tying an educator's performance to the students and subject he or she teaches.

They also called on the state to deliver the teacher evaluations in a more timely manner. Currently, results of the value-added model — or "VAM" — don't arrive until the next school year. A review of VAM, which seeks to quantify the teacher's impact on student test scores, also was ordered.

Patty Hightower, the School Board chairwoman in Escambia County, said she was surprised when VAM scores suggested that struggling teachers were doing fine.

The summit concluded earlier than scheduled Wednesday, with Stewart thanking attendees for their "incredible" work.

At the start of the day, Florida PTA president Eileen Segal had reminded Stewart that some districts were already in their second week of school.

"We need to have transparency," Segal said. "When you go back (to Tallahassee), if you're going to make changes, please let us know so we can prepare our children."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

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