Miami Jackson Sr. High may have earned an ‘A,’ but likely stuck with ‘B’

01/20/2014 12:16 PM

01/20/2014 2:38 PM

For the third straight year, students at Miami Jackson Senior High earned enough points for an “A” rating from the state. But it appears unlikely they’ll get credit for the accomplishment.

According to the school and Miami-Dade district, data snafus affecting fewer than a dozen students cost Jackson its top rating last month when the state released 2012 -13 grades, marking down the inner city school to a “B.” The district is asking the state to change the grade, but the errors are the type the Florida Department of Education insists can’t be appealed.

“How do you take away what our students achieved? To me it’s inconceivable,” said Miami Jackson testing chairman Felix Diaz.

For Miami Jackson, the third A in a row would have cemented a turnaround from a decade of “D’s” and “F’s,” and placed it among the state’s top-rated schools. The higher grade also comes with a bonus: The state gives what are called school recognition funds to A-rated schools, including $190,000 to Jackson during the last two years.

Records show the school’s students earned the points for an “A.” But under the state’s grading policies, at least a quarter of a school’s students must score at “proficient” levels in reading or suffer an automatic drop in letter grade. Jackson fell just shy of that mark and was unable to keep its “A.”

Diaz and school district officials, however, say Jackson’s students only missed the 25 percent threshold because scores from a handful of students — who are still learning English and should not have been counted — were incorrectly factored into the school’s grade. Those students, called “English Language Learners,” must be in a U.S. school for at least a year prior to the first day of the Florida Writes exam to have their scores counted, and Diaz contends that wasn’t so with about a dozen kids.

But even if Jackson and the district prove that was the case, chances remain slim that the state would change the grade. That’s because the data used to determine the status of English Language Learners is finalized in March and can’t be argued.

The situation has frustrated Jackson’s teachers, who say they’ve received little feedback on the issue from the district or the state after discovering the problem months ago. Dozens have signed a petition demanding an “A.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school’s plight is another example of how flawed grading policies are harming schools. For instance, district officials believe a change in state law that determines when the clock starts ticking on English Language Learners may have contributed to the error.

“My God, we’ve gotten so good at actually splitting hairs — right? — regarding that date,” Carvalho said. “It’s indicative of this insanity where accountability provisions have become so complex that they really disadvantage kids, teachers and schools.”

Gisela Feild, Miami-Dade’s director of assessment, research and data analysis, said the problem with Jackson’s test scores was due to both data entry and the transmission of that data to the state. She said student records are entered at the school level and some of that information didn’t process when sent to the state. That left blank the record that notes the date a student first entered a U.S. school, and without a specific date those students were automatically counted, she said.

Feild said the district sends between 3 million and 5 million records to the state each year, which makes catching every error extremely difficult. She said the problem didn’t hurt grades at any other schools, but has led the district to create some new policies to hopefully avoid a repeat.

“It’s a very complex system and unfortunately what happened to them [Jackson] is that it was so close to the cutoff, six or seven kids made a difference,” Feild said. “It’s almost virtually impossible for anybody to think there’s never going to be an error that falls through the cracks.”

The district also caught issues at Homestead Senior High, Archimedean Upper Conservatory Charter School and Miami Coral Park Senior High, and is appealing their grades.

For Diaz, the Jackson testing chairman, trying to change Jackson’s grade has been maddening. He says his efforts to pinpoint the problem and correct it were ignored for weeks by the school district, until he became so frustrated that he and a colleague sent complaints to both the Florida and Miami-Dade inspector generals.

“They kept ignoring us, and ignoring us, and ignoring us,” says Diaz.

Even now, he says he has received different explanations from the state and the district about what happened.

Carvalho and Feild dispute that the district wasn’t responsive. Rather, Feild said it made sense to wait for grades to be released and then appeal, knowing that Jackson deserved the prestige and rewards that come with an “A.”

A Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said the state doesn’t comment on pending appeals. But Education Commissioner Pam Stewart reminded superintendents this summer that there were “many opportunities for districts to review, update and correct all the data used for school grades and school improvement ratings.”

In the past, the state has held firm on such deadlines. Three years ago, Doctors Charter School received a “B” due to a similar issue involving students who should not have been counted. The state agreed that an error had occurred, but said the grade would stand because the state had a deadline for fixing such data.

Approving an appeal, they argued, would compromise the integrity of the data and set a bad precedent for the future.

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