Many Florida schools that struggle under the state’s polarizing A through F grading system will again get a reprieve this year after the state Board of Education narrowly agreed Tuesday to keep rankings from dropping more than one letter, regardless of performance.
Board members voted 4-3 in an emergency conference call to reinstate a “safety net” in response to concerns that a slew of changes made to raise education standards threatened instead to unfairly punish schools. Board members and Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who recommended the change, also talked about preserving faith in Florida’s school grades — even as they questioned whether the system has already lost its credibility.
“Frankly, we’ve overcomplicated the system,” said board member Kathleen Shanahan, one-time chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who ushered in the grading system in 1999. “I don’t think it’s a statistically valid model anymore.”
The school grades are calculated by measuring scores from standardized tests and year-to-year learning gains. High school grades include other factors, too, like graduation rates. The grades can carry the promise of teacher bonuses or the penalty of state-mandated overhauls, student transfers or even closure.
But the state’s model, hailed and copied by other states, has been frequently altered in the name of boosting standards. Superintendents including Miami-Dade’s Alberto Carvalho warned that the combined effect of all the recent changes would be more dramatic than anticipated. Conversely, Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future lobbied the board not to inflate grades or “politicize the grading formula.”
Tuesday’s vote to alter the formula after the release of test scores is the second in two years. Last year, board members lowered writing cut scores after realizing how poorly students fared.
On Tuesday, board members and Bennett acknowledged to varying degrees that the system for calculating grades has become convoluted. Shanahan even asked whether the state wouldn’t be better off simply not issuing grades this year, a suggestion that Bennett shook off.
“We will have to make sure that everyone understands true school performance,” Bennett told reporters. “Data will speak for itself, and how that gets reported out and presented is important.”
Board member Sally Bradshaw, another former Bush chief of staff, argued that the board’s vote only made things more complicated by masking poor performance. She noted the safety net would save more than 150 schools from F’s. An initial simulation of data for a statewide distribution of school grades done part way through the calculation process shows that 262 schools would get F's without the safety net; 108 with the safety net - compared to 40 in 2012.
“I don’t understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable,” Bradshaw said.
Board Chairman Gary Chartrand responded: “Are we really revealing the truth if we don’t really have a statistically valid model? I don’t think we do.”
As Florida’s education gatekeepers debate the best path for their system, experts and politicians elsewhere are watching.
Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said the fact that state education leaders are questioning the validity of the grades “further undermines the legitimacy of the system as an accountability system.” Pallas, who studies state accountability systems for a living, said Florida’s school grades have been tinkered with so much that it’s hard to know what they mean.
“When you’ve got the state Board of Education … saying ‘We’re not sure what these things mean,’ Why shouldn’t the public be skeptical?” he said.
Bennett told reporters Tuesday that the whole system will likely need to be overhauled anyway when Florida implements the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards in the 2014-15 school year. He said he recommended the safety net, after some initial reluctance, to smooth that transition.
The Florida Department of Education will likely have to work with the Legislature, which has a heavy say in school accountability policies. House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said the Legislature may need to pass a bill to help stabilize the grading system and re-emphasize the focus toward successfully implementing Common Core standards.
“This exhausts people. It exhausts every stakeholder in the education system,” Fresen said of the school grades debate. “To focus that much energy and allow that much oxygen to be sucked out of the room based on a grading formula we’re going to transition out of in three years is a mistake.”