In a memo released Friday, Bennett said he made his recommendations, based on the advice of a task force, “not to soften the blow of higher standards or to reduce the number of failing schools.” His intention, he said, was to ensure “the credibility and viability of Florida’s accountability system,” which is even more important as the state moves to enact sweeping changes through the Common Core State Standards.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, a task force member who called on the state months ago to reconsider some aspects of its accountability formula, said Bennett made the right call. He said the state might now leave itself open to criticism, but avoid a situation where education officials are left to explain to parents that their children’s school received better test scores but a worse grade.
“This may have national implications because Florida is a leader in this accountability-driven reform movement,” he said. “There’s a risk of criticism but a much smaller risk than if he’d opted not to change anything at this point.”
Rick Hess, of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, agreed. He said Florida’s tinkering with its grading formula is “insider baseball” to people outside the state. But he said states moving to the school grade model can expect to run through the same dilemma as they attempt to push their education standards.
“There’s a fundamental tension for any state board in wrestling with this,” he said. “On the one hand, there’s an admirable desire to not engage in grade inflation, and there’s a concern in many places that we’ve not set the bar high enough, so there’s a push to raise expectations accordingly. The flip side of that is you risk setting expectations where parents look at a school and say it looks like a good school, but the grade is lower than it should be. That tends to undermine confidence in these systems.”
There are many critics of Florida’s school reforms who would argue that the state has lost faith and understanding in school grades. But the desire to maintain belief that an “A” is an “A” has led even Bush acolytes to consider that perhaps Florida’s grading system has become too complicated to communicate to parents.
“We can have all the accountability we want, but if nobody understands it, we’re not going to have anybody advocate for it,” State Board member Kathleen Shanahan, Bush’s former chief of staff, said last month.
Patricia Levesque, CEO of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, has also discussed the possibility of simplifying some aspects of the state’s school grading formula, though she said this year’s drama ignores that, despite higher writing scores, the state saw flat or diminished reading and math scores.
“Regardless of what happens, the state is going to move forward,” she said, adding that critics around the country will pick apart the state board’s decision, no matter what that is.
That’s probably the case, as states like Virginia and New Mexico fight the same battles over school accountability and what in those cases are new grading systems. Florida’s system was evoked, and Levesque’s foundation consulted, in establishing school grades in both states.
Howie Morales, a New Mexico state senator who tried this year to throw out the state’s A-through-F formula, said he’s paying attention.
“If the nucleus where all this came from is struggling with it, then there’s discussions that we need to have about a more reliable system in New Mexico,” he said.
And in Virginia, which passed an A-through-F plan this year, Bristol schools Superintendent Mark Lineburg said any stumbles in Florida should be a caution.
“If Florida can’t get it right,” he said, “then are we really going to continue with this?”