Florida's best, worst schools deride new rating formula

The MiamiHeraldFebruary 25, 2014 

South Florida schools employ some of the best and worst teams of teachers in the state, according to complicated and controversial evaluation scores the state released for the first time Monday.

But the Florida Department of Education immediately warned its own performance standard, released under court order, wasn't a

complete reflection of how well teachers or schools are doing -- a view largely echoed by public school administrators.

Teacher unions had an even dimmer opinion of the previously private data, calling the scores insulting and invalid.

One of the highest-scoring schools, for instance, is led by Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho -- iPreparatory Academy, which ranked 24th out of 3,700 schools rated statewide. But he cautioned against drawing any conclusions from scores under the state's "value added model" evaluation formula.

"It is so wrong to line up any sort of ranking on the basis of VAM," Carvalho said.

Scores are based on how students perform on tests compared with the expectations of a complicated formula.

The VAM formula attempts to predict how a student will perform on state tests in math and reading and then determine how much or little a teacher helped. It was adopted by the state following the 2011 passage of the Student Success Act, which established performance pay and linked evaluations to job security.

The formula is a major factor in annual job reviews -- but has been derided by teachers, many of whom have been assigned VAM scores based on subjects or students they don't even teach. That is because in the first two years of evaluations only Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading and math and algebra I scores have counted toward the results.

The data is so controversial the Department of Education, joined by the state teacher's union, fought a lawsuit by the Florida Times-Union to make the information public. They lost, and on Monday released three years of data for teachers schools and districts.

State education department leaders defended the ratings as an accurate reflection of how well students are served by their teachers and schools when it comes to boosting scores on statewide assessments.

But they warned the scores were -- as Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick put it -- "only one tool" to gauge overall performance.

Still, the data comprise roughly half of a teacher's job performance. And in Florida, where test scores will be tied to teacher raises and can be the difference between being held back or moving up a grade, improving test performance can be crucial.

The data released Monday shows the state's top-ranked school was Charter High School of the Americas in Miami. It exceeded expectations on state tests at rates 300 percent the state average.

At the low end of the schools, two Broward charters that ranked in the bottom 25 have since closed -- Parkway Academy and Next Generation Charter School.

The state's lowest-rated school was Alpha Charter of Excellence in East Little Havana, with students performing at levels that when compared to formulaic expectations fell more than 100 percent below the state average.

Alpha Principal Isabel Navas said the VAM scores were not a fair measure. While the state attributed the score to two years of data, she said the new school just opened and first issued tests to a small group of students last year.

Even Nataly Parra, principal of Charter High School of the Americas, which boasted the highest score in Florida, said VAM information from the state in 2011-12 was "not very clear" and contained errors.

Carvalho said the VAM formula doesn't account for important factors like poverty. He said the formula has the potential to become a more comprehensive tool, but isn't at that point yet.

"At no point should anybody interpret that score as a true global reflection of a teacher or school's effective performance," said Carvalho. "It's just a small and in my opinion somewhat flawed reflection of an overall performance examination."

Fed Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade, had stronger words, calling VAM scores "insulting" and an invalid evaluation tool.

"It takes everything we know about teaching and tries to reduce it to an algorithm," he said. "The VAM score at School A doesn't mean anything compared to the score at School B."

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