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  1. Education

Florida school grades would change little if education commissioner Stewart gets her way

Late in the fall, superintendents announced their lack of confidence in the state education model and called on Gov. Rick Scott to “pause” school grading until the state has two years worth of results. [DIRK SHADD | Times] 

Fears that school grades would tank under Florida's new tests eased on Wednesday as Education Commissioner Pam Stewart issued a simulation showing that the distribution of A through F marks would remain largely unchanged from 2014 to 2015.

However, the news did little to dissuade advocates of fewer state tests and a slower transition to the new model.

"Had this happened several years ago, it would have significantly diffused the pressure for a fundamental overhaul of Florida's system," said Bob Schaeffer of Lee County, public education director for Fair Test, a national group against high-stakes testing.

But calls for change are less likely to dissipate now, Schaeffer suggested, given all that has happened lately — including repeated problems with state computer testing and rising pressure for reform from parents and educators.

"We aren't going to test and punish kids out of poverty, and this is just more of the same garbage we have had for 15 years," said Rosemarie Jensen, a Broward County teacher and activist who favors opting out of tests.

"The fact that school grades didn't change — big deal."

The movement has included heavy pressure from the state's district superintendents to cancel school grades for 2014-15, in large part because one year of results from a new test, using new standards, makes it impossible for the state to show learning gains.

Stewart acknowledged the many changes, and noted that the state had put off several — though not all — of the consequences attached to the first-year results. At the same time, she and other proponents of data-driven accountability resisted pressure to put the system in abeyance.

"The reality of it is, performance was fairly consistent with what it was in the past," said Sen. John Legg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "The superintendents calling Chicken Little have, in my view, lost credibility."

Late in the fall, superintendents announced their lack of confidence in the state education model and called on Gov. Rick Scott to "pause" school grading until the state has two years worth of results. They have continued to cast doubt on using the outcomes from the spring, when students across the state grappled with repeated glitches in the online computer systems.

Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins remained concerned that "the system is not set up properly to show the success of our students," spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. "Without using gains, you won't see a level playing field."

Superintendents and others have backed Stewart's proposals for where to set new passing scores, often called "cut scores" — an issue that comes before the State Board of Education on Jan. 6. They aim to persuade State Board members, who have debated whether the commissioner's recommendations are demanding enough.

Vice chairman John Padget has led the charge for higher passing scores on each test, arguing the state should not mislead students into thinking they're performing better than they are.

"My position on cut scores is that the commissioner's recommendation sets the bar too low, in fact lower than Georgia's," Padget said via email.

Joining several business interests and former Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation, Padget has pushed to have the passing scores align with "proficiency" ratings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Such a change would lead to more F's and fewer A's.

Newly appointed board member Tom Grady, by contrast, has taken up Stewart's argument that such a connection between the two tests would be confusing and contrary to state law.

Others hedged their bets, saying they would review all materials leading to the final vote.

Stewart released her grading simulation to add to the mix, which also included more than 1,000 public comments. One activist wasn't fond of either approach.

"While the commissioner's model might be seen as more reasonable than was anticipated by many, my objection is to the assigning of school grades at all, which drives the test-and-punish culture that is destroying our schools," said Sandy Stenoff, a Seminole County parent and opt-out advocate.

Stewart has asked superintendents for final input as the decision nears.

Arja said Hillsborough school officials will review the simulation and send an analysis, with the hope that the state will take the feedback into consideration. The simulation would see Hillsborough having more than double the number of F schools, while its A-rated school count would drop from a year earlier.

Meanwhile, Pasco schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe added, her district's view remains that 2015 test scores shouldn't be used for school grades at all. Pasco would see a rise in A schools and a dip in F's.

"There's no true baseline data," Cobbe said. "We're not going to celebrate A's, and we're not going to mourn F's."

Once the State Board votes next month, its word is likely to be final.

"This is a State Board of Education issue," said Legg, who backed Stewart's approach to passing scores. "I don't see the Legislature engaging in this."

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

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