With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Floridas A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But theres been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get Fs, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.
The trend is visible through a decade-plus of school grade results, dating back to the first grades issued in 1999.
A Miami Herald analysis of this years elementary and middle school grades (high school grades arent available yet) shows:
• Although high poverty rates dont necessarily doom a school to a subpar grade, D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods, and the few schools that do overcome poverty to achieve an A are outliers. (There were nine such schools this year, all in Miami-Dade).
• Of the 209 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward with at least 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 78 percent received a grade of C or worse. Roughly 39 percent of these high-poverty schools received a D or F.
• Of the 43 local schools with much lower poverty rates (30 percent or fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch), 86 percent received an A, and none received a D or F.
As the school reform movement that created letter grades faces a growing backlash from parents and teachers and U.S. child poverty rates continue to rise the income-driven distribution of the grades has prompted an uncomfortable question: Are grades measuring how well a school teaches kids, or are they simply a reflection of how much money the parents of students have?
Floridas school letter grades are heavily influenced by standardized test scores, though high school grades do consider other factors such as graduation rates. Because test scores drive the calculation and because research shows that poorer students dont perform as well on those tests the better grades assigned to wealthier schools are not a complete surprise.
But the grades have remain lopsided in Florida even after the state added student learning gains to the formula in 2002. In theory, adding student growth was supposed to give poorer schools a better shot at success, as they would be rewarded for boosting the performance of students who walked in unprepared but made real progress.
Just last month, then-Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said, Measuring growth is kind of the field leveler.
According to some researchers, however, the methodology Florida uses to calculate growth also benefits wealthy schools. Florida awards points for students who were below grade level and are able to catch up, but it also awards points for students who enter school at grade level and simply stay on track.
Schools in more-affluent areas tend to have more students who start out as solid achievers in reading and math. As long as those students keep up the good work, these schools receive substantial growth points.
Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia Universitys Teachers College who studies state assessment systems, said hes generally neutral when it comes to Floridas school grades. But Pallas does object to how Florida judges its high-poverty schools. Those schools are unfairly punished by how growth is defined, he said.