TAMPA — Florida's public schools won't see as drastic drops in grades as predicted this year.
The State Board of Education decided Thursday that no school should decline by more than one letter grade for this year only, so they can become more accustomed to the several new changes in the state's accountability system. Those include higher passing scores and new tests.
"We believe that in order to prepare our students for the future … we need to raise the standards," education commissioner Gerard Robinson told the board. But "this is coming at a time when many school leaders have already made decisions where to move those students," he said.
As a result, the state projects 780 B schools, compared with 543 without the change, and 131 F schools compared with 199.
Educators applauded that decision, but they were less charitable about other school grading changes also adopted.
They criticized a move to weigh the learning gains of English language learners and students with disabilities as not going far enough to account for the fact that those children face significant challenges in meeting grade-level proficiency.
And they panned a decision to categorize special education centers as alternative schools, making the test scores of students with severe disabilities count in school grading either for the center or the "home" school they would have attended.
Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia called the latter effort "extremely illogical" because it discounts the actual education needs of these students, many of whom never will attend their home school.
Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho shared Elia's dismay and said he would not abide a system that makes a "home" school responsible for the test scores of students it had never taught.
"We will allow those schools to receive the school grade issued by the State," Carvalho said in a letter to the board. "The consequences of this decision will need to be addressed by the FLDOE once these grades are made public."
He and Elia, who said she would do the same, expect those to be F's.
Parent advocates of children with disabilities added a twist. They acknowledged that the students with severe disabilities, who number about 3,000 statewide, deserve special consideration.
But they also did not want policy for those children to drive the train for the 400,000 other students labeled with disabilities whom they wanted fully included in the accountability process.
It would be unfair to put children in a system where there is an incentive to send them to a school where their scores will not be counted, said Richard LaBelle of the Family Network on Disabilities. "If you open the door to any possible loopholes … then I think you are opening the door to a separate and unequal system."
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Board members asked their lawyers if they could make an exception for the students with severe disabilities and were told they could not. They adopted the recommendation and said it would be a priority to ask lawmakers to rewrite the statute.
Their debate over the inclusion of English language learners was equally intense.
Several speakers told the board that its plans to include FCAT proficiency scores for students still learning English in the school grading model is unfair.
"ELL students are smart. They can perform," said Rosa Ugalde, Miami-Dade's executive director of bilingual education.
But if they're tested in a language they are acquiring, she said, the exam doesn't show what they know.
Representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens Florida said the state should consider adopting additional measures to support English language learners, who make up large portions of school enrollment in key urban areas including Tampa, Miami and Orlando.
Board vice chairman Roberto Martinez criticized Robinson and his staff for not handling negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education well on this matter. He suggested that some of the assertions Robinson made over how the ELL students must be counted do not appear in any laws or rules that he had seen.
"This whole thing hasn't been handled correctly by the department," Martinez said.
Robinson defended himself, as did board chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan, who said Robinson had done much "heavy lifting" to get the state to a point where its No Child Left Behind waiver is moving ahead.
The entire debate, though, left some people wondering whether the waiver is worth the trouble.
As Carvalho said in his letter to the board, "We have been told time and again by the FLDOE that this must all be done in order to obtain approval from the USDOE. … In the end, I question whether the ends truly justify the means."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.