The value of the new letter grades assigned to Florida schools last week comes with a major caveat. This is only the second year of the new tests based on Florida Standards, the state’s reworking of Common Core, and this year the Florida Department of Education toughened the already complex grading standards.
Last year, the state did not penalize schools with failing marks for several consecutive years because of the flawed roll out of the new tests and comparisons to past marks would have been futile and wrong. But this year, schools face a variety of bleak setbacks, even closure. A number of Manatee County schools face state sanctions.
But the Manatee County School District can celebrate the notable number of schools that rose at least one grade. Still, the new grading standards this year are reflected in the decline in school marks from the previous year. Five schools earned A’s and 12 got B’s compared with 16 A’s and 13 B’s last year. Those drops followed the statewide pattern as the number of A schools fell dramatically.
CThe Manatee County School District’s overall grade, though that could rise to a B.
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The culprit looks to be the state’s more demanding method for determining “learning gains.” The state ranks students in levels from one to five, the latter being the highest-performing students. Learning gains are no longer calculated by labeling a student’s new raw score a learning gain, should the mark be identical to levels scored the previous year. Now raw scores must improve to earn a learning gain. Advancing to a higher level certainly achieves that gain. That major change is spurring district adjustments to score higher school grades.
While the district’s overall score slipped from a B to a C, district leaders are challenging that grade drop with the contention the state miscalculated the marks for Manatee and Bayshore high schools. Both received “incomplete” grades because, in the DOE’s view, data showed the two failed to reach the minimum percentage of students with test scores. Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Cynthia Saunders maintains the state count misses the real total and the district is appealing the C grade. Saunders told Herald education reporter Meghan Delaney the district is only a few points from a B mark and corrected Bayshore and Manatee numbers could be the difference.
Last year, an identical scenario played out at Palmetto High School, which initially received an incomplete but ended up with a C. Manatee earned a B and Bayshore a C in 2015 grades.
The F’s for two charter schools, Just for Girls and Visible Men Academy, could be devastating
That immediate and likely temporary disappointment on the district’s C score is overshadowed by the F schools facing state penalties. After a fourth consecutive F, Harllee Middle School must implement a turnaround plan. This year’s new sixth-graders will be attending a different school, and incoming seventh- and eighth-graders can choose between staying put or moving on to another school. For those that stay, the district will be pouring in additional support staff and extend the school day by an hour. Tillman Elementary received its second consecutive F.
The F’s for two charter schools, Just for Girls and Visible Men Academy, could be devastating. Both could have their charters revoked. There should be a consideration of fairness for both as expecting the same standards for vastly different student populations ignores reality. Just for Girls strives to educate of middle school girls who have not been able to succeed in a traditional school setting. Forcing those students into regular public schools would be counterproductive, and the state should bear that in mind.
Visible Men Academy serves at-risk elementary and middle school aged boys from low-income neighborhoods with a curriculum that includes character building and social education. The district’s Title 1 schools struggle with teaching those youth, too, but this charter tends to that demographic exclusively — a situation that also merits consideration.
Manatee County School District is now scrambling to improve its student test scores and academic standing, certainly the best strategy to implement.
Overall, the state applauded the improvements that districts managed to accomplish. The most notable: The number of schools receiving an F fell by half, from 204 to 103. More than 1,100 schools maintained an A or increased their grade.
That won’t quell the criticism. Some district superintendents are calling this new grading system complicated and confusing and in need of a total overhaul, but DOE is not backing down — unlike in previous years when the agency admitted mistakes and made some adjustments. That should occur again.