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Hillsborough school board takes stand against grading disabled kids' schools

Published Jul. 18, 2012

TAMPA — Stupid. Asinine. Abomination.

You don't hear such language every day from the Hillsborough County School Board. But when it comes to giving F grades to schools for disabled students, polite language won't do.

"This particular action, in my view, is the testing and accountability movement at its very worst, most cynical, most mean and most stupid," chairwoman Candy Olson said Tuesday before voting to lodge a protest with the state and federal governments.

The new grading system, which drew strong opposition from superintendent MaryEllen Elia when it was proposed, stems from an agreement between the state and federal departments of education.

In exchange for a waiver that helped Florida streamline its testing, the state agreed to change the way it counts the scores of students with disabilities and new English speakers.

When it came to exceptional student education centers, districts could choose letter grades or improvement ratings. If they chose ratings, the scores would count against the students' neighborhood schools — in many cases, schools they had never attended.

With the exception of two schools for children with discipline problems, Hillsborough chose grades. Now educators are bracing for F's at the Caminiti, LaVoy, Lopez and Willis Peters centers.

"For my students, progress is measured in very small increments," said Karen Western, a teacher at Caminiti. "Success may be as simple as using eye gaze as a response, or looking at a book as it is read to them."

Not everyone opposes grading special-education students.

Some parents are pushing for accountability to make sure schools and teachers set high expectations for their children. But the board voted 6-0 on a resolution by member Jack Lamb to mount a strong opposition to the new system.

"This is an abomination in terms of penalizing students and their parents who are working so hard to provide a quality education to them," Lamb said.

Member Carol Kurdell agreed. "The state is dead wrong on this one and I, for one, am going to say no to the state."

It's not clear what the district can do, other than complain. Changing the policy might require legislative action.

"I don't know what not complying with this looks like," said member April Griffin, who described the policy as "ludicrous, and I'm going to say it, asinine."

Olson said Hillsborough might want to devise its own grading system.

"It is time for someone who actually knows what is going on in our schools, the people in this room, to come up with a grading system that has some connection to reality," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

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