Most everybody knows Florida public schools get a letter grade based in large part on how well their students do on standardized tests, whether it’s how many are working at grade level or whether the school’s lowest-achieving students are making adequate progress. But that letter grade doesn’t take into account key factors that the federal government considers important in its education and civil rights law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis should move to correct this flaw and ensure that all children receive the education they are entitled to receive under the Florida Constitution.
Florida doesn’t factor into its school letter grades the performance of subgroups such as students still learning English, those living in poverty, minority students and those with special needs. That’s one of the reasons Florida was the last state to receive federal approval for its plan. Schools want to earn A’s, and so they naturally focus on the elements that key contribute to the grade. One of those metrics: Did the lowest performing 25 percent of students improve enough in English language arts and mathematics?
Under the new federal ESSA standards, that is not enough. ESSA requires that the achievement be broken out of specific subgroups such as English learners and students living in poverty. Otherwise it’s too easy, to borrow from the phrasing of the old federal law, to leave some students behind. So Florida now will report such numbers to the federal government, but it does not make them part of the letter grade. That means a school could achieve a good letter grade by Florida’s reckoning but still do poorly on the federal scorecard. It’s easy to guess which one parents and politicians will focus on.
It is not hard to fix the worst of these problems:
• Break out the performance of sub-groups — don’t just treat all students in the lowest-performing 25 percent as members of one big group — because there are different reasons for their low performance. And make the performance of those subgroups part of the school grade.
• Make progress in English proficiency part of the school grade. There is no better way to ensure children are learning English than literally to grade how well schools are doing at it.
• For students who are still learning English, offer subject matter tests in the language they know best. A math test, for example, should measure a student’s math ability, not how well she knows English. Offering a Spanish-speaking student a math test in Spanish will give a true assessment of her math achievement, which is the point.
The logic underlying all of these points is basic. Human nature is to teach to the test, certainly, if it’s high stakes, so what becomes part of the school grade becomes important to the school. The federal government forced Florida to revise its plan five times before finally approving it last fall. But unless it makes still more changes, Florida will not be ensuring that every student succeeds.