School grades to stay, Florida education chief says

Public school superintendents hoping for a reprieve from the state’s polarizing school grading system won’t get any support from Florida’s education commissioner.

Commissioner Pam Stewart said flatly Tuesday that she is opposed to a request from local schools chiefs that the state suspend the issuance of school grades while grappling with new, controversial learning benchmarks and bringing in new statewide exams to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

“I don’t think suspending school grading is the right thing to do for students,” Stewart said during a State Board of Education meeting held in the auditorium at Miami Lakes Educational Center.

Tuesday’s meeting was a precursor for an all-important State Board meeting in February, during which board members will hear Stewart’s recommendations for a revamped and “simplified” school grading formula, and vote on proposed revisions and a renaming of the Common Core State Standards. The standards, which set new expectations of what students need to learn by grade level, have been adopted by 45 states, including Florida.

Concerns about how schools will transition to those standards, which remain a work in process in Florida, and how students will perform on a still-unnamed test led the Florida Association of District School Superintendents to request a three-year suspension of school grades starting next year. Miami-Dade Superintendent Carvalho reiterated that request Tuesday.

“There is a way of creating a transitional accountability system that includes a direct, legible and easily understood school report card for parents and business leaders without necessarily imposing a letter grade during this transitional period,” he said.

But while no vote was taken Tuesday, Stewart’s comments made clear that the Florida Department of Education intends to continue labeling schools “As” and “Fs.” Stewart said her recommendation to the State Board of Education next month won’t include a hiatus of school grades. Rather, it’s likely she will suggest the state issue the new test next school year, then set “cut scores” that determine student performance and issue school grade results around November 2015.

Stewart stressed that Florida’s A through F system does a good job of driving student improvement, and just needs to become more transparent after a flurry of changes led to criticisms that letter grades had lost their meaning.

Stewart also defended her recommendation for close to 100 changes to the Common Core State Standards, which are currently being taught from kindergarten to 12th grade across the state. Her recommendations included keeping Florida’s calculus benchmarks for high schoolers, bringing back cursive and print writing in elementary school grades, and relabeling the Common Core as the “Florida Standards” in a nod to concerns that the new standards are part of a federal overreach into education.

“A lot of us were worried about the public image of ‘Florida Standards,’ ” said board member John Padget. “I’m able to say that Florida Standards, in respect to math, are higher than the so-called Common Core.”

Stewart also said her recommendation on which company should be contracted to come up with a new statewide exam should come in March, as planned. She said the test won’t need to be field tested before next school year because the process of purchasing the exam will include ensuring that the test is aligned with what students are learning.

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