School grade uproar continues in Florida

dsmiley@miamiherald.comJune 19, 2013 

Rosa Cline's kindergarten class presented a message of encouragement for Olga Tharp's third grade students, who were about to take their first FCAT in April 2013. ERICA EARL/Bradenton Herald

TALLAHASSEE -- For the second year in a row, the Florida Board of Education may tweak the state's accountability standards on the eve of the release of school grades.

Board members agreed Tuesday to take another look at the state rating system following warnings that a flurry of changes during the last two years could drop grades beyond expectations even in schools where student performance improved.

Grades for 2013 are expected as early as next month.

"It may be late, but it's not too late to sit down and perhaps get three superintendents from (the Florida Association of District School Superintendents), which can appoint them," Chairman Gary Chartrand said during the board's monthly meeting, held in Tampa. "They may come back and look at everything and say what we have in place is the right thing. But we want to be open, careful and considering if there needs to be a change."

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said he would move to convene a task force Monday when he returns from a vacation. There isn't another state board meeting until September, so any changes would be made on a conference call, Chartrand said.

The willingness to reconsider Florida's school grading formula came after weeks of criticisms from district superintendents that the state had tinkered too frequently and too far with its accountability system, which factors scores from tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test into a point system. State education officials have said the new, tougher standards were an attempt to "raise the bar" for students as Florida heads toward the even more rigorous Common Core standards and new assessments in the 2014/15 school year.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho attended Tuesday's meeting and stressed that while in

creasing standards is appropriate, the Board had created through its many changes a "multi-variate" impact that state officials didn't fully understand. He expects Miami-Dade's school grades to drop despite strong FCAT scores.

"You do not know or understand the cumulative impact of these changes," Carvalho said, calling on the board to bring back a measure last year that kept school grades from falling by more than one letter. "There ought to be a safety net."

Another change called for by superintendents: reconsider the state's new proficiency cut score for writing exams, which moved up to 3.5 this year.

In May last year, the state board moved writing cut scores down to 3.0 from 4.0 after education officials found scores of students failed the exam.

The board also belatedly altered some accountability measures, including the establishment of the one-letter-grade drop safety net, and a rule that gave districts an option to transfer the scores of students at special needs centers to their home school if the center chose a school improvement rating rather than a letter grade.

The latter, related to requirements in Florida's federal waiver from punitive No Child Left Behind measures, has been ripped by Carvalho and Miami-Dade School Board members. The district chose to have the state grade its district's disability centers rather than have teachers and principals measured based on scores from students they didn't oversee. Those centers received F grades.

Carvalho again Tuesday called on board members to stop "assigning a scarlet letter" to disability centers. Chartrand agreed the state needs to see if it can revisit its federal waiver.

Board members and Bennett also acknowledged the state has done a subpar job explaining to parents and the public that increased accountability standards will result in lower school letter grades.

"We have to tell people there is going to be a technical correction," she said. "There's going to be more C, D and F schools, but your kids are learning more. And that's oxymoronic to a lot of people."

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