Miami-Dade braces for lower school grades amid tougher standards

Students in Miami-Dade and Broward counties are more than a week away from sitting down to take the FCAT 2.0 and kicking off a battery of standardized tests and end-of-year exams. But some South Florida schools officials are already talking about the results.

That’s because Florida’s reform-minded Board of Education has again increased accountability standards this year by issuing more tests, making it more difficult for students to pass some exams and raising the bar for earning top school grades.

“Usually what we see when we increase standards is we see a one-year drop” in performance, said Jane Fletcher, director of accountability and policy research for the Florida Department of Education.

Knowing that, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and School Board members aren’t waiting to see test scores to communicate how Florida has moved the goal posts.

On Friday, they hosted a 150-minute session in which they criticized portions of the state’s ever-changing accountability formula and warned that school grades overall are likely to drop, despite data showing that Miami-Dade students are ahead of where they were last year.

“We’re not dealing with widgets. We’re dealing with kids, and teachers whose evaluation is tied to the students’ performance. What a shame it would be for people to misinterpret these results,” Carvalho said.

Among the changes taking effect this year, according to Fletcher:

•  Higher passing scores for FCAT science and end-of-course geometry exams.

•  Schools where fewer than 25 percent of students are reading at satisfactory levels will be dropped a letter grade.

• A school’s grade will suffer if fewer than half its lowest-performing students improve their performance.

• A safety net keeping schools from dropping more than one letter grade is gone.

•  This year’s high school freshman class is the first to be required to pass the FCAT 2.0 reading, plus algebra 1, biology 1 and geometry end-of-course exams before they graduate.

Florida has been tweaking its tests and accountability formula — and facing criticism of its standardized testing — ever since the FCAT was launched and school grades first came out in 1999.

The changes this year come on the heels of more than a dozen accountability amendments last year, many of them due to Florida’s pursuit of a waiver for strict and punitive requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Some changes last year were controversial, such as including test results from students who are still learning English, and a decision to hike FCAT writing cut scores to 4.0. The latter led to students failing in droves and was later revised temporarily to 3.0. This year it’s back up to 3.5.

Also new this year: end-of-course exams for U.S. history.

In addition, the state Board of Education is expected to consider yet another change this month in order to keeps its waiver: Eliminating alternative diplomas from its calculation of graduation rates, which factor into high school grades.

All these decisions change or toughen the state’s school grading formulas, and there is more at stake than bragging rights. Schools get extra funding — and teachers receive bonuses — as a reward for high grades, while schools that consistently post failing grades can ultimately be forced to close.

Teachers, whose evaluations — and eventually pay — factor in students’ test scores, also stand to be impacted. And for students in third and 10th grades, passing FCAT exams can be the difference between moving on to the next grade or graduating with a standard diploma.

Carvalho, who has been critical of Florida’s school-grading system, said he called Friday’s gathering because he didn’t see that the Florida Department of Education had “sufficiently” tried to explain how school grades and testing are changing this year.

He said he didn’t hear other districts explaining it either.

“I can tell you we’ve spent two-and-a-half hours on this today. That’s about two hours and 28 minutes more than other districts have spent on this,” he said.

In Broward County, Superintendent Robert Runcie said this week that the state changing its formula has become an “annual ritual.” But he said the potential impacts in July, when elementary and middle school grades are released, is not something he has studied in detail.

“No one’s come to me and said, ‘Hey man, this is going to be like a huge problem for us,’ ” Runcie said.

Fletcher, the state’s head of accountability, said schools and districts have known about the coming changes. She said past results show schools and districts quickly rebound and respond with a better performance.

“The next year, schools work really hard and changed expectations result in increased emphasis,” she said. “I’d expect we’ll see a little bit of a drop, and then we’ll see them move forward and do better in later years.”

But Carvalho and his cabinet are equally uneasy about the coming years. They worried Friday about an increase in end-of-course exams creating a “bottleneck” of students struggling to graduate, and changes coming as Florida moves to implement the Common Core state standards.

Florida is one of 47 states moving to create the national curriculum, which means phasing out the FCAT in favor of a new exam.

“We really don’t know what an A, B, C, D or F school will be,” said Gisela Feild, the administrative director for assessment, research and data analysis for Miami-Dade. “We have no idea how those scores will be generated.”

As Florida joins most other states in implementing Common Core, Runcie said there will additional predictions of drops in student scores — both here and around the country.

“Our kids didn’t all of a sudden lose some skill or cognitive ability,” he said. “We just basically changed the bar, and they’ll catch up.”

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.

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