Florida’s formula for grading its schools — hailed as a model nationwide — may be rewritten again this year to include a controversial “safety net” that would keep grades from dropping more than one letter. But the 11th-hour wrangling over the “accountability formula” is drawing attention far beyond Florida.
“We’re definitely watching,” said Eric Lerum, vice president of national policy for the Washington, D.C.-based reform advocacy group Students First. “The rest of the country is watching as well.”
Buoyed by Florida’s rising fourth-grade reading scores and an early jump on what’s now a national movement, more than a dozen states have moved in the last three years to mimic the Sunshine State’s polarizing school grades system. And Florida’s standing has helped propel former Gov. Jeb Bush into a national force on education policy.
The state Board of Education will meet Tuesday to consider recommendations that they reinstitute a safety net and change the way test scores are treated at special education centers.
The potential changes are few in comparison to the vast complexity of Florida’s school grading system, which has seen more than two dozen amendments in the last two years. But should the board agree, it would be the second straight year it’s changed the system under pressure — and after the release of test scores, on the eve of issuing school grades.
Last year, the state also revised hundreds of school grades after miscalculations.
Those recent stumbles have only fueled attacks and skepticism of Florida’s education reforms.
“We have been grappling with this for 15 years, and I’m concerned that if we don’t get a grip on this quickly, our accountability system’s credibility is at risk,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “Florida can’t afford that. We’re at a critical stage in our education history here, and we’ve got to grab a hold of it.”
More is at stake than ever. Teachers’ evaluations and compensation are tied to test results, administrators are held accountable for school grades, and low-performing schools can be overhauled or shuttered when they fail to improve their standing.
But it’s the concern that Florida is losing control over the system that has underlined this year’s debate over whether the school grading formula needs even more tweaking.
School grades are now mainly based on results and year-to-year gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. High school grades also consider graduation rates and the number of Advanced Placement classes.
After a slew of rigor-enhancing amendments, school superintendents have warned that by changing so much in so short a period, the state board was threatening to undercut schools that were holding stable or even improving.
The calls for last-minute changes have put Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the board in a difficult spot. On one hand, they can leave the formula unchanged and watch school grades drop, perhaps more than anyone expected. Or they can enact Bennett’s “safety net” recommendation — which even he recently said “kind of isn’t in the spirit of transparency” — and likely reignite questions that they’re playing with the results.