The national push to grade schools has slammed into an unexpected roadblock, causing even supporters to question the validity of the widely celebrated A-F system that Florida started 14 years ago.
Thank former Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett.
“This conversation was coming,” said Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst for the nonpartisan New America Foundation. “The actions of Tony Bennett and his staff, and what happened in Indiana, made it come sooner. ...
“What happened in Indiana undermined a lot of the accountability principles that Tony Bennett seemed to want to uphold.”
In his zeal to ensure the credibility of a fledgling grading system in Indiana, Bennett decided to tweak the formula as state superintendent in 2012 when it became clear that one school — run by a political supporter — wasn’t on track for the A grade he believed it deserved.
The story exploded last week, just days after Bennett conducted a more public rejiggering of Florida’s school grading system. He resigned Thursday, leaving questions about whether A-F school grading can be fair and equitable.
Emboldened critics are calling for school grading to end.
“The events of the past month prove that it is subject to public and private manipulation by politicians,” Christine Bramuchi of Fund Education Now, a Central Florida group, said in a news release. “It is an unfair and arbitrary system that hurts children, teachers and our state.”
The teachers union in Indiana called for an immediate suspension of their state’s grading.
Joining the chorus of concern, although at a lower pitch, were some national policy analysts who in the past had offered some of the most full-throated support for school grades as the policy spread across the country.
“I don’t know that we’ve been careful enough or transparent enough about what is driving these school grades,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Petrilli said Bennett’s actions in Indiana highlighted that school grades often are based on judgment calls.
“We should be clear about that, and then be cautious about what decisions we make with them,” he said. “We might need to be more careful about tying high stakes to them.”
In Florida, schools stand to get or lose money based on their grades. Teachers and principals can lose their jobs because of the grades. Families market their homes based on the grades.
A LOT ON THE LINE
With so much on the line, Petrilli suggested, “We have got to be really sure that we are identifying these schools correctly.”
It’s more of an art than a science, said Andy Smarick, a former New Jersey deputy education commissioner who has helped create some models.
“No matter which components you put in the system, no matter how you weight them, you are always going to have some schools that pop up” as seeming to be graded against common sense, Smarick said.
“Schools are really complicated organizations, and when you try to simplify them down to a single letter grade, this is one of the consequences.”
Offering single grades might help parents and the public identify schools with high performance on the measures, he said, but “you are going to miss part of the story.”