Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

School-grade sanity


OUR OPINION: State Board of Education pulls back on the most unfair testing rules

State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett gets a B+. Based on a task force’s concerns, he recommended that the formula used to calculate letter grades schools receive after their students take high-stakes, standardized tests be revised.

The tweaks should bring a measure of stability to public schools, administrators, teachers, students — even real-estate agents — everyone who has a stake in maintaining the quality of education in the state. The changes also will insert a measure of fairness, which took a back seat to the rush to push students to excel — a noble goal, but at what expense?

The state Board of Education approved Mr. Bennett’s recommendations, which is the least it should have done. After all, the board enacted a raft of changes to the grading formula in the first place, changes that stand to hurt schools that have made letter-grade improvements and do even greater damage to those that are still struggling.

The state increased FCAT writing standards from 3 to 3.5. But the accountability measures, under the unrevised rules, would have compared last year’s percent of students scoring 3 and above to this year’s percent of students scoring 3.5 and above. The fear was that many schools, after working hard to raise their scores, would not have those efforts recognized through the letter grade. Instead, they would lose points, even when the percent of students scoring 3.5 when comparing 2012 to 2013 increased substantially.

In some instances, schools that earned a C last year could have drop to an F. It would have been a misleading picture of the strides they had made.

Under the new rules approved last week, schools will have a “safety net” that prevents them from dropping more than one letter grade. This is only fair.

The Board of Education also removed a second, egregious provision that would have assigned the test scores of the most academically fragile students — those enrolled in alternative schools and exceptional education centers — to the home school that they might otherwise attend.

This is so unfair on its face that it’s a wonder it ever was approved. Schools would have had to factor in the results from, likely, low-scoring students who never even went those schools. The Legislature, in its belated wisdom, wiped out this provision, but that won’t kick in until next year. Mr. Bennett says he will work to impose the update retroactively, so that schools are not penalized this year.

Schools, and those who study and labor within, unfortunately have been at the mercy — some would say whim — of state education and legislative leaders who say they want to raise the academic quality in the state. At the same time, they have thrown so many changes at school districts that they only sow confusion and doubt as to the real quality of our schools — all before the Common Core Curriculum kicks in next year, bringing with it a whole new set of assessment tools.

Last year, the state had to back pedal when it was forced to admit that more than 200 school grades were wrong. It was an embarrassing and unsettling mistake. It happened under a former education commissioner who pushed and pushed schools so hard that he pushed himself out of the job. He left declining test scores and demoralized school communities in his wake.

Students aren’t widgets, and educating them well is not, simply, a numbers game. Mr. Bennett can up his own grade to an A if he makes sure that education leaders act accordingly.

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