State education chief suggests grading formula tweaks

The Miami HeraldJuly 13, 2013 

The state's top education official has recommended last-minute tweaks to the formula used to calculate school grades to ensure the "credibility and viability of Florida's accountability system."

The Florida Department of Education on Friday released a memo from Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett in which he urged state board members to bring back a safety net to keep school rankings from dropping by more than one letter grade.

He also advocated ending a controversial practice of transferring the test scores of students attending special education centers back to their home schools.

Bennett's recommendations come just before the release of school grades, expected out this month, and will be weighed by board members Tuesday.

They are based on advice from a task force of superintendents and education observers who warned that more than a dozen recent changes intended to increase the rigor of Florida's accountability system would instead damage its credibility by dropping grades precipitously despite steady or even improved test results.

Bennett, however, stressed that his position had nothing to do with improving school letter grades. He said his aim is to stabilize Florida's schools as they prepare to implement new Common Core State Standards in 2014-15.

"To the greatest extent possible, my goal was to minimize the number of changes in the short term," he wrote. "To be clear, my recommen

dations, outlined below, are made not to soften the blow of higher standards or to reduce the number of failing schools."

Should board members endorse Bennett's position, they would enact 11th-hour changes to their school grading formula for the second straight year. Last year, the board faced criticisms that it had padded grades after members changed writing exam cut scores due to woeful student performance.

Bennett's recommendations drew mixed reaction in South Florida.

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said the proposed changes would ease the burden on school districts. But even if Bennett's changes are adopted, school grades this year are still widely expected to drop -- an outcome Runcie argued is in conflict with what is really happening in Florida's classrooms.

"There's been no decline in student achievement, in Broward or across the state," Runcie said.

Miami-Dade's education chief, Alberto Carvalho, who had warned that a greater threat to school accountability lay in undermining the legitimacy of school grades by assigning worse rankings even to improving schools, said he was "in full support" of Bennett's recommendations.

However, Carvalho, who served on the task force, offered one caveat. In order to avoid a delay in the release of school grades, which according to a department spokesman haven't been calculated yet, Bennett advocated that his recommendations regarding special education center test scores be applied retroactively through an appeals process. Instead, Carvalho said the state should either wait to issue school grades, to give districts a chance to weigh new options for their special education centers, or issue those centers a grade of "incomplete," to be calculated later.

"He says there's a pressing expediency in his mind to release the school letter grades, and that's where I have a bit of a concern," Carvalho said. "Are we rushing to simply get it done rather than getting it done right? If we've gone this far, why not really do it right all the way through?"

The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet 10 a.m. Tuesday via conference call. Information: www.fldoe.org.

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