Florida may keep school grade safety net

Associated PressAugust 28, 2013 

CLEARWATER -- Florida may keep a safety net for another year that could keep some schools from getting branded with an "F" grade.

The move, which would be discussed in this fall by the State Board of Education, comes amid a sharp debate over the future of Florida's well-known A-to-F school grading system.

That system -- which relies on high-stakes testing and school standards -- has been under review this week at a three-day school summit called by Gov. Rick Scott, who said the system has reached a "critical" point.

State education officials will discuss later this year whether to keep in place a rule that would prevent school grades from dropping more than one letter at a time.

This "temporary" rule was first adopted in 2012 but the state board narrowly voted to keep it intact for this year. If the board were to approve

it this fall, the rule would be in place for grades handed out next summer.

Each year the state hands out grades that are used to reward top schools and sanction those that get failing marks. But those grades have come under fire because of the vast array of changes that have been made to the grading formula as the state prepares to transition to tougher standards known as the Common Core State Standards.

Gary Chartrand, the state board chairman, was supportive of keeping the safety net provision through 2014.

"We need to make sure we have some stability in our system as we move to Common Core," Chartrand said.

But Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, said it was "premature" to discuss keeping the safety net while legislators and other education officials are in the middle of contemplating possible changes to the grading system.

Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said one advantage of making a decision now is that it would give time for school districts to prepare.

"I think it's important that our schools and school districts know what the rules are ... as early as possible," Stewart said.

The future of Florida's grading system caused a day's worth of spirited debate at the summit, which featured a group of teachers, school superintendents, legislators and other leading voices in education.

And during those debates state legislators in charge of education decisions made clear their position.

State Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, strongly objected to any talk about altering the existing A-to-F system to mirror the same criteria used to evaluate teachers under Florida's teacher performance pay law.

"To move away from it at this point in time ... would be a very bad mistake," Thrasher said.

State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and the chairman of the Senate education budget committee, also said legislators would have trouble supporting a new round of tests that would carry a "very large price tag." Galvano said he was concerned by estimates showing that the national test being developed for Common Core could cost nearly twice as much as what the state spends on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

The majority of those invited to the summit have said they back the state's move to Common Core standards. Some groups, including some in the conservative movement, have sharply criticized the standards.

Laura Zorc, a member of Florida Parents Against Common Core invited to the summit, said she was not surprised by the reaction. She said the summit was made up of people who are strong supporters of the standards. But instead of debating the merits of the standards, she said she is instead focusing on expressing her concerns to members of the Scott administration.

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