Column: Common Core's way forward

Published Aug. 20, 2013

When I joined the Florida Board of Education, our schools were a national disgrace. We exposed that by grading them on an easily understood A-to-F scale.

That simple act of accountability forced school districts to address long-standing mediocrity and failure. The academic achievement of our students has improved dramatically as a result. From national disgrace, Florida has become a national leader in advancing student achievement.

We need to keep that in mind amid the current controversies surrounding school grades.

There are those who strongly support accountability but are concerned that the grading formula has gotten too complicated, which can lead to doubts about its accuracy. That is a discussion worth having.

But there also are those who hope to eliminate the grades altogether or create grading formulas that hand out A's like trophies in youth soccer. Given the disastrous state of education in Florida before accountability, that logic escapes me.

We have almost 15 years of experience demonstrating that school grades drive results.

When we began grading schools in 1999, we used a simple formula that measured overall test scores in reading and math.

We then added the year-to-year improvement in test scores. This recognized the hard work of low-income schools in boosting student achievement.

Initially we did not include students with disabilities in the grading formula. We began doing so in 2005. Florida has led the nation in improving the academic achievement of these kids ever since.

We also used accountability to boost high achievement.

Under Gov. Jeb Bush, the state began to give incentives to districts and teachers to expand Advanced Placement classes. And as part of a 2010 overhaul of the high school grading calculation, AP enrollment and AP test passing rates were included.

As a result, Florida now has become one of the nation's leaders in high school graduates who have taken an AP course and have passed an AP test.

To accelerate student achievement in the middle grades, the state gave middle schools credit for the number of students they moved into high school-level classes. This has led to more seventh- and eighth-graders taking algebra and geometry. Their remarkable success on the end-of-course exams shows they obviously were up for the challenge.

The current complexity of the grading system is, in part, a natural result of its aging process. We set new goals and add new criteria to achieve them, with the adjustments adding up over time.

This process sped up as we began preparing for the transition to the Common Core state standards. This has led to complaints that too many changes are overwhelming the ability of schools to absorb them.

An added concern is that the number of grading metrics has diluted focus on the overriding goal of ensuring all students perform at grade level in core subjects.

For example, a majority of ninth- and 10th-graders at a high school may not be able to read at grade level. But there are enough other categories in the calculation to make up for that and allow the school to earn a B. Does that grade truly reflect the progress of all students?

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We have, in fact, seen a recent stagnation in reading and math scores. And that tells me it is time to get the grading formula back to the basics of rewarding both progress and performance of all students in crucial skills and subject areas. But we must do that without compromising the gains made by rewarding high achievement. This is where Common Core is so valuable.

By bringing all students up to the high standards set by Common Core, we will see a natural migration of more of them into accelerated classes. And so the need to incentivize middle schools for kids taking algebra, or high schools for kids taking AP diminishes. The kids will wind up there anyway and they will be better prepared to succeed when they do.

Common Core gives us an opportunity to simplify the grading system and produce better outcomes for all children. I strongly encourage the Florida Board of Education to take full advantage of it.

Phil Handy, former chair of the state Board of Education, is a board member of Foundation for Florida's Future. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.