Education reform at a crossroads in Florida

August 30, 2013 

Florida Governor Rick Scott talks with some members of Palmetto High's rowing team on the first day of the Masters Rowing Championship at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota on Aug. 15. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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This week's education summit should compel Gov. Rick Scott to provide resolute leadership on reforms else he fail the test that he himself wrote in asking dozens of legislators, superintendents, parents and business leaders to come up with recommendations.

Amid a transition to the controversial Common Core State Standards, in the wake of the recent padding of school grades this year and followed by the sudden resignation of the state education commissioner, Florida stands at a crossroads on education policy.

Among the summit topics of high-stakes testing, school grades, teacher evaluations and tougher education standards, the state's well-known A-to-F grading system came under the most scrutiny -- an imperative for a deeply flawed system that forced tweaks to prevent too many school failures this year for the second one in a row.

The validity and reliability of the state's current blueprint for evaluating and ranking schools comes into question because of shifting standards. Year-to-year comparisons become difficult when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the foundation for school scores, becomes tougher and passing marks rise.

In October, the state Board of Education will once again examine whether to adopt the "safety net" for the third consecutive year, thus preventing school grades from dropping two letters or more. Those marks are critical, with high-performing schools earning rewards and failing ones falling under state sanctions.

This year in the Manatee County school district, five D and F elementary schools made the state's list of 100 lowest-performing schools for reading, and the Florida Department of Education requires that students there remain in school an extra hour each day for reading lessons. All five are Title 1 schools with high populations of poor students.

A new Miami Herald analysis of this year's elementary and middle school grades found the wealthiest schools never receive Fs and schools with high percentages of poor students struggle just to score Cs.

The state only steps in with sanctions after schools are branded as failures; a more equitable system would be able to predict such outcomes and be proactive with additional state resources to improve learning before tests are taken.

Stewart indicated there is no expectation the summit will usher in changes in the school grading system or the other three strategic priorities Scott outlined. Instead, the summit merely serves to inform upcoming discussions among legislators and the state board. If that message is the system isn't fair and needs to be revamped, then that might be enough.

Summit ideas on school grading include marks based on three years of test scores, which is the standard for teacher evaluations; replacing letter grades with other scores; adding "pluses" and "minuses" to those letters to reflect differences; and grading schools in an array of areas.

Accountability is vital, but only when equitable and understandable, not constantly shifting. Florida's education standards are set to rise again under Common Core's rigorous emphasis on critical and analytical thinking and college and career readiness. A redesigned school grading system should be a key part of that transition.

The governor pledged to adopt some summit recommendations via executive order and assign others to the Legislature for the 2014 session. Strong leadership is essential to end the stumbling on school grades.

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