State school board votes to keep school grades from dropping precipitously

eearl@bradenton.comJuly 16, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- The State Board of Education approved 4-3 a new rule that will prevent school grades from falling more than one letter grade at a time in a year.

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett's proposal comes as Florida prepares to transition into the Common Core standard, Bennett said that educators and superintendents across the state have been expressing their concerns about school grades dropping as a result of a more rigorous curriculum.

Bennett said this new rule is designed to act as a cushion during a time of transition and said it is a "minimalistic and simplistic way" to aid schools.

"The most important issue is the transition to Common Core," Bennett said. "We are moving into an era of adopting new assessments, and we know that it's coming."

The measure is supposed to be temporary until common core is fully integrated into the state's schools.

Board members Barbara Feingold and John Colon both voted in support of the proposal, along with board member Ada Armas and the State Board of Education chairman Gary Chartrand.

Colon, the board member from Manatee County, said that he believes that the new policy for school grades will not give schools with low grades false confidence, but instead raise their confidence in their ability to educate children.

"It is not productive to penalize schools by dropping them significant letter grades at a time," Colon said. "The schools in Florida need confidence and support."

Three of the state board members argued against the adoption of Bennett's new rule, including vice chairman John Padget.

"I voted 'no' on the minimum of one grade reduction in any one year last year, and I have a hard time changing my position today," Padget said.

Padget said that he believes that dropping a school one letter grade gives a false reading of a school's performance and hinders student achievement.

"We have got to improve Florida's talent," Padget said. "We have a talent gap with other states and certainly with other nations."

Board member Sally Bradshaw said that she saw Bennett's recommendation as a "manipulation of the truth."

"This cushions the blow from the latest scores following a raising of the bar," Bradshaw said. "We have 'F' schools that desperately need intervention and better instruction. They need to get that data before the manipulation and know their true grades before the changes with Tony's proposal."

Bradshaw and Padget agree that schools that should receive an "F" will feel better and get a sense of false confidence because they receive a "C" or "D" instead.

Manatee County deputy superintendent of instruction Diana Greene said Monday that if a school sees that it only fell one letter grade, it might not look at the true picture and do all the things necessary to make gains.

Concerns about the transition into Common Core and school grades raised at the July 1 task force meeting of state education officials and superintendents from Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Escambia, Volusia and Highlands counties included higher standards for student writing.

The passing score for the FCAT writing was raised from a 3.0 to a 3.5 in preparation for the higher writing standards that will come with Common Core. Bennett said that the issue is not in the testing scale but in the way school grades are distributed. Bennett said that standardized testing has a heavy bearing on school grades that can lead to two-to-three letter grade swing.

"I think it should be at least a 3.5, and it is the appropriate place as we transition because of the increased rigor and expectations when it comes to writing," Bennett said. "Moving backwards would compromise the transition and would not be the appropriate step."

Bennett said that the most appropriate action was to provide a safety net for schools to protect school grades.

The state school grading system is not an easy concept to be grasped, and points given for each student based on test scores to determine a grade weigh heavily on the outcome.

"Now there are politics behind the truth in the numbers," said board member Kathleen Shanahan. "It is a complicated system, and we are continuing to make it over-complicated. Every piece should be understandable and explainable, are not many people who could explain our school grading model."

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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