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  1. Education

Florida's 2015 school grades are out; here's what you need to know

Remember the first time Florida issued school grades? It was back in the late 1990s, and they came across as a novel way to quickly show whether a school was performing well or badly.

The state based the A-through-F marks on simple performance, and handed out money to schools that had top results. The concept was so unusual to some that one Sarasota school tried to hand its check back to the Cabinet, suggesting the money would be put to better use helping a low-performing school.

In the years since, the state has added learning gains to the formula. It has raised passing scores, implemented and removed bonus points, even set a "safety net" to protect schools from wild fluctuations amid constantly changing grading formulas.

Those frequent alterations led even the most ardent school grading and accountability proponents to question whether the model had outlived its usefulness. They demanded a simpler, more transparent system — the results of which we see today with the release 2015 school grades.

They're instructive, but only to a point. School principals have said they're paying little attention to the grades, but keeping an eye on the testing data to keep teaching on the right path.

Education commissioner Pam Stewart put it plainly to superintendents in a Friday memo: The grades are a "preliminary informational baseline," she said, adding that they are "a new starting point, based on new assessments with new student expectations and a new school grading model."

You can browse the grades here.

Below are some questions and answers that led the Florida education system to this moment. Take the results for what they are (and aren't). And wait for the next ones, which are due in just four months.

School grades for 2015 are just coming out now. Isn't that kind of late?

Usually, elementary and middle school grades arrive in the summer, with high school grades issued in the late fall. The 2015 grades are obviously much later than that, coming just weeks before 2016 testing begins.

That's certainly not preferable to educators, who have said they need the information at the beginning of the year, not the middle, to help them see where students need to improve.

Still, it's not all that late, considering the state faced the complicated task of adopting new standards and developing the tests to go with them. The Department of Education said from the start that it would need added time to set passing scores for the new Florida Standards Assessments, which undergird the grades, and then to write new school grading rules. None of that could happen until the testing ended.

The effort was delayed slightly when lawmakers required an independent validity study of the FSA, following a glitch-filled computerized testing season. But 2015 school grades were never expected at the usual time.

What's different about these new grades?

These grades will not include learning gains from year to year because the tests students took in 2015 were different from the ones they took in 2014, making comparisons impossible. Lacking this key data, lawmakers said the grades would not be used to penalize schools.

This year also marks the elimination of the "safety net" that prevented schools from seeing their grades drop more than one level. Implemented in 2013, the safety net was thought by some to undermine the integrity of the grading system.

Other changes include a provision to count only the grading components for which a school had enough data, instead of giving schools a zero for those areas that were lacking; and a redefinition of a school's lowest performing students to include children who might have scored a "satisfactory" Level 3 for the first time.

Schools will have the chance to appeal their grades, including the possibility of receiving a waiver if they can demonstrate they had significant testing problems last spring that affected the outcome.

Even school superintendents are criticizing this year's grades. Can I trust their accuracy?

That depends on how much you trust the state's education accountability and data collection systems.

The primary reason superintendents have challenged the grades this year is the absence of the gains information, which they correctly point out is required in law to be part of the formula. They fruitlessly asked for the grades to be withheld for the year or, as a substitute move, for all schools to receive an "incomplete."

But they never questioned the underlying data from the test results, instead suggesting that the scores be reported as a baseline for future years' grading.

Even State Board of Education members have said the 2016 grades should have more value than the current ones.

Critics of the model, by contrast, have pointed to a fall testing validity study to suggest that too many questions about the FSA remained unanswered to trust the test results. They hold the grades, based on those results, in similar low esteem.

Are these issues related to the new Common Core standards?

When Florida joined many other states in agreeing to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2010, that set in motion a series of changes that led to what we have today. New standards meant the state would need to design a new standardized test to measure how well students were grasping the information. Away went the FCAT and in came the FSA. As with any brand new test, student scores on the FSA had to be calibrated to determine how they related to the five achievement levels. Once that happened, and the State Board of Education approved, the scores and levels could be used to calculate school grades. So, yes, the whole process of developing a new school grading system goes back to Common Core.

Will the grading system return to normal this year?

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, new school grades should again be released in the summer.

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