Florida gets an F on public school assessment system

July 23, 2013 

Standardized testing in Florida's public schools has once again come under withering fire. This year like last, the state Board of Education decided by the slimmest of margins, 4-3, to prevent school assessments -- largely based on student FCAT scores -- from falling more than one letter grade.

Under the present inequitable system, that is a fair change.

The move will spare more than 150 schools from earning an F; 262 schools would have plummeted two grades to F's but now only 108 will receive that mark.

Manatee County's school board and administration embraced the scoring change without even knowing the impact on schools here.

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett proposed the "safety net" in the grading formula following school district concerns that the results would not accurately bear out student achievement.

The board debate over tweaking school grades showed the deep division among board members.

On the one side, there's Sally Bradshaw's point of view. "I don't understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable."

On the other side, there's Chairman Gary Chartrand's opposite reflection: "I don't think the truth is being reveals in the current grading system."

The Board of Education and Legislature must accept responsibility for this entire fiasco. Under the pretext of strengthening Florida's school accountability system, the state rushed "reforms" into place early last year -- by arbitrarily setting the bar too high.

With tougher tests, higher passing scores and the inclusion of learning gains among the disabled and other factors, the inevitable occurred last year and a furious public demanded the state change course.

But the Board of Education did not learn the lesson of 2012. They failed students, educators and parents again this year.

Why would certain elements in the state want to flunk so many schools? Where's the truth in changing the rules of the game and punishing more schools willfully? Is the real motivation to humiliate public schools and propel expansion of the charter and private school movement?

Politics and big business are inextricably intertwined in Florida. Charter school management companies are major players in Tallahassee, providing big campaign contributions.

On the heels of Republican efforts to pass legislation allowing parents to turn failing schools over to for-profit management companies, the connection between tougher school grading and politics cannot be ignored.

Fortunately, though, that so-called parent trigger bill has failed to pass the state Senate the past two years -- by very slim margins. This issue will likely come up again during the Legislature's 2014 regular session.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with charter or private schools -- Manatee County is home to a number of outstanding success stories -- the state should not undermine public schools with unfair and misleading assessments of student achievement.

All of this isn't to suggest Florida lower its education standards either. Indeed, an even more rigorous curriculum is coming with the new Common Core State Standards in the 2014-2015 school year, first with math and language arts.

The state will phase out FCAT exams in favor of new tests aligned to Common Core. That, too, has already generated controversy, with Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford calling for Florida to abandon the national assessments, still under development. The two leaders want the state to compose its own exams. That's another issue, one that will continue the debate over high-stakes standardized testing.

Florida must implement an assessment system that is fair to students, teachers and schools; takes politics out of the equation, and puts the focus on children.

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