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Bad Grades

Florida's flawed school-grading system: We can't dump it, so how do we make it better?

TEACH THE CHILDREN WELL: Nikolai Vitti, pictured with his family, says the state should focus on students’ growth.
Photo: Dennis Ho
STOP IGNORING THEM: Colleen Wood of the Network for Public Education argues that lawmakers should listen to teachers.
Photo: Dennis Ho
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In a move that acknowledges that Florida's school-grading system is deeply flawed, policymakers are calling for changes to the A-through-F rating scheme. Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti have chimed in on proposed reforms, while leaders at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF), a local think tank, say it's time for a complete overhaul.

These grades are important to schools because they affect enrollment — parents want to send their kids to good schools — which in turn affects a school's operational budget. The more students a school attracts, the more funds it receives. School grades also impact teacher bonuses — and possibly property values, too.

Many teachers and parents, however, contend that the whole concept is folly, part and parcel of the two-prong corporate reform ideology: high-stakes tests and privatization. "School grades have become an annual hoax," Florida Education Association President Andy Ford told Folio Weekly. "The constantly changing system is manipulative and cannot be trusted."

Colleen Wood agrees. Wood is a St. Johns County parent-advocate who serves on the national Network for Public Education (NPE), which was founded by former Assistant U.S. Education Secretary Diane Ravitch, an early high-stakes testing apologist who has since, and very publicly, changed her mind.

"School grades at this point in Florida show us how data can be manipulated for ideological purposes," Wood says. "[They point] out the obvious — that a school in a high-need neighborhood is failing. It's as if we're saying, ‘We know your school is struggling; we're going to tell you you're failing and we're going to punish you for it. We're going to change everything at the school and destabilize you when what you need most is stability.' "

Indeed, schools that receive poor grades often suffer funding losses, personnel shakeups and even closures. "We can brand a school with a grade," Wood says, "when what we should be doing is monitoring the growth of students and making sure they have the resources they need."

Despite frequent and vocal protests from parents and teachers, though, and given the political climate in Tallahassee, school grades are almost certainly here to stay. Even those who hate them acknowledge that. So instead, they're looking to the forthcoming shift from FCAT to a Common Core-based Florida test as a chance to improve the system.

"There's such an opportunity now," says JPEF President Trey Csar.

In 1999, a newly elected Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through his A+ education plan. Two years later, the current school-grading system came into being, four years after the first round of FCAT testing, which began under Gov. Lawton Chiles. The A+ plan was ostensibly an accountability measure for public schools that would also serve as a guide for families.

The scheme ranks schools on an A-through-F scale based in large part on how students perform on the FCAT, an annual standardized test. From the beginning, critics have argued that these grades are really intended to highlight "failing" schools in order to sell charter and voucher schools, which in turn drain dollars from the public school mission.

(Indeed, the A+ plan included school vouchers for students in struggling schools, which the students could use for, among other options, religious schools. In 2006, however, the Florida Supreme Court declared the vouchers unconstitutional, preventing Bush from using public funds for private schools. In reaction, Republicans created a back door: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which funnels tax dollars to the voucher-awarding corporation now known as Step Up for Students.)

The main problem with the current school-grading system is that its credibility has taken too many hits in too few years.

Confusion about the grading system abounds, 
thanks to a history of shifting proficiency goalposts on the FCAT and changes to the school-grading formula. A brief published by JPEF in January — School Grades: Understanding and Updating Grades for Florida's Future — notes that the state's school-evaluation system and its components have changed 16 times since just 2010.

One change that caused grief for students, teachers, schools and state officials was the ramped-up writing standard begun in 2012. FCAT "pass" scores for writing were raised from a 3 to a 3.5. But when students didn't do well, the pass scores were readjusted back down to a 3 for 2012, and then back up to a 3.5 for 2013.

"There was a devastating effect on school grades, even where kids did better," Vitti says of the 2012 recalibration. "It also had a devastating effect on the morale of teachers and students."

While Vitti says he understands the need to periodically increase standards, changing the rules midstream can result in what he calls "the LeBron James effect. Seventy percent of LeBron James' shots are three points. If you move that line back, he's going to lose points" even if he sinks the same percentage of shots. The points he makes will count for less. "People are frustrated and disillusioned with the accountability system."

School officials, in fact, were so frustrated that, after Florida ratcheted up the goal posts, it had to institute a two-year "safety net" to prevent schools from falling more than a letter grade at a time. That led to questions about which grade was "real" — the raw grade or the safety-net grade.

As this safety net was being established, it came to light that then-Education Commissioner Tony Bennett had engaged in a similar grade-tinkering process as head of the Indiana school system. The Associated Press reported last July that Bennett's changes resulted in an A for Christel House Academy Charter School, a pet project of a major GOP donor. Minus the change, the school would have scored a C. (Bennett resigned as Florida education commissioner a few days later, less than eight months after taking the job.)

Statewide, Bennett's safety net prevented plummeting grades in 388 schools and cut the number of failing schools by at least half. In Duval County, the safety net kept KIPP charter school from dropping to a D, and Duval Charter School at Arlington from plunging to an F.

The thrust of JPEF's January brief is that the current system slants toward what's called grade-level proficiency, without enough focus on whether students below grade level are improving.

One reason is that the A-through-F formula permits only a year-to-year snapshot of student growth, which fluctuates wildly at troubled schools and therefore results in a grade that may better reflect student demographics than actual teacher effectiveness, Csar says. With the system focused on proficiency, Csar says, "It's easier for kids in easy situations. If you're way down in proficiency, you can still move a long way and get no credit for growth."

Vitti agrees. "You certainly want to measure growth because kids come in behind and schools want to demonstrate that they're making a difference with kids."

JPEF argues that the state should ditch the snapshot view and replace it with a long-term view of student and school progress. Doing so, the think tank argues, would account for the dramatic fluctuations at struggling schools.

After all, the research shows that student improvements occur in multi-year cycles. "There's an ebb and flow to it," Vitti says.

The superintendent also supports JPEF's proposal to keep constant all test and school-grading criteria for five years at a time; under this proposal, schools would be neither punished nor rewarded during the years that tests or grading formulas are changed.

Multi-year measures would also enable educators to track peer groups. Instead of comparing the progress of one year's third-graders to another year's third-graders, for example, this cohort model would use multiple years to track student progress over time: The same group of third-graders could be examined in fourth grade, fifth grade and so on, giving school officials a clearer view of their team's strengths and weaknesses.

JPEF also wants to alter the grading scale so schools aren't bunched in the A and F categories. Currently, the A range encompasses a very broad 275-point span, and the F range is 320 points wide. The B, C and D ranges are much narrower: 30, 60 and 40 points, respectively. Simply put, a school doesn't have far to go to change from a B to a D or vice versa.

JPEF wants to make each letter grade worth 120 points. This, however, would mean fewer A's overall, which worries officials in more affluent districts that benefit from the emphasis on proficiency, like St. Johns County School District's Superintendent Joseph Joyner. If 80 percent of schools make A's, Joyner told the Times-Union, "That means we're doing well."

The state's buzzword these days is "simplify." Commissioner Stewart highlighted that concept in her presentation to the Florida Board of Education on Feb. 18, calling for the removal of the complex weighting system that accounts for a school's lowest achievers. She also wants to get rid of college-readiness measures for high schools, along with points for accelerated coursework (e.g., Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses), and a component about graduation rates for at-risk students.

While Vitti agrees with the idea of simplifying the formula, he opposes Stewart's proposal. In a letter to the state's education board, Vitti expressed his "deep concerns" over these suggested changes: "I believe the currently proposed changes at the high school level reverses our state's progress with advancing a ‘college going' culture among all of our schools and students, especially those from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds."

Last week, state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, filed a bill that would suspend school grades until Florida fully transitions to the new Common Core-based system. While Stewart says grades on the first round of new tests won't be used to reward or punish schools, educators say one year isn't enough. After all, the schools used FCAT for four years before implementing it as the basis for the all-important grades.

And here's another important point: Except 
for asking Florida to take a hiatus from grading schools, those educators are conspicuously missing from this public debate. Perhaps that's because they're too busy suing the state in federal court over the current teacher-evaluations model, which they contend is unconstitutional. Or maybe, given their longstanding objections to high-stakes-test-based grading schemes, teachers are simply tired of being disregarded.

"We're always trying to tell schools what to do. That's not support," says Wood, the St. Johns education activist. "Support is lawmakers not just listening to teacher testimony but taking action on it. How many times have educators and superintendents been patently ignored?" 

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