Florida’s grading formula a threat to accountability system

Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ (M-DCPS) students outperformed the state in cumulative growth in reading and mathematics across all grades tested, according to recently released Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) results. In spite of improved performance, educators across Florida are bracing for lower school grades as the result of numerous accountability changes imposed by Florida over the last two years.

M-DCPS has championed reasonable accountability measures designed to inform and improve efforts to educate our students, many of whom are challenged by issues such as poverty, mobility, language and special needs. We have supported increased standards and a fundamental commitment to raising rigor and expanding access to world-class curriculum. We’ve been recognized by the AP College Board as a national leader in minority students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams and were awarded the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education, recognizing the nation’s most successful district at closing the achievement gap for minority students and those living in poverty.

We are committed to high quality education, utilizing data to analyze results and individualize instruction and ensuring educational accountability; however, the methodology employed must be reasonable and not unnecessarily demoralize and disincentivize teachers and students.

Unfortunately, Florida continues to tamper with the school grading formula, implementing over a dozen changes this year alone despite the objections of teachers, superintendents and parent groups. Those changes will mean that though students performed better, schools that received performance grades of C last year may be facing F grades this year.

When Florida moved from FCAT to FCAT 2.0 we were supportive. New cut scores were put in place last year in elementary reading and math, and we were supportive. In November, new cut scores were set for science in fifth and eighth grades and for end-of course assessments in geometry and biology, and we were supportive. These are methods of increasing standards in and of themselves. However, it simply doesn’t make sense to add more, particularly when so many things are in flux.

One example of a change that took effect last year is that English Language Learners, students whose native language is not English, are expected to pass state exams at the same proficiency levels as native speakers after only one year of English instruction. This is not reasonable and certainly does nothing to accurately reflect the quality of education being provided at a school. In Miami-Dade, where over 63,000 students are non-native English speakers, the disproportionate impact of this change has staggering implications.

Another change includes increasing FCAT writing standards from 3 to 3.5, which we support. However, accountability measures now compare last year’s percent of students scoring 3 and above to this year’s percent of students scoring 3.5 and above — this application of rule will yield a significant loss of points for schools, even when the percent of students scoring 3.5 when comparing 2012 to 2013 increased substantially.

Perhaps the most egregious of the recent changes is the return of individual scores of students enrolled in alternative centers and specialized exceptional education centers to their would-be home schools. The Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) is asking us to make a Hobson’s choice — either risk the label of “F” for schools servicing the most fragile students or credit these same students’ scores back to their home school, regardless of whether the student has ever attended that school. To impose changes of this magnitude and so indiscriminately is tantamount to the NBA moving the three-point line to half-court in the middle of the playoffs; it’s unfair by any standard.

In 2014, Florida will move to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), so why impose devastating changes now that will only serve to frustrate students and educators, painting a confusing and likely inaccurate picture of many schools’ performance?

This will be the equivalent of a stock market technical correction, where schools uniformly receive lower grades, not based on performance, but based on changes to a formula.

Unfortunately, the FLDOE has done little to prepare the public for these changes, who may think there was a slide in teacher performance or student achievement, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Recent history has demonstrated that when faced with unreasonable recommendations by the FLDOE, the State Board of Education has been the voice of reason, placing the interests of students and teachers above bureaucratic dictates.

On the eve of the Common Core standards shift, the greatest threat to the integrity of Florida’s accountability model is a disconnect between increased student performance and decreased school grades. The time is now for the public to call on the state to evaluate schools in a manner that is fair to students and educators and stop playing what amounts to a shell game with our system of accountability.

Alberto M. Carvalho is the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

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