With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida’s A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there’s 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 year’s elementary and middle school grades (high school grades aren’t available yet) shows:
• Although high poverty rates don’t 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?
Florida’s 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 don’t 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 University’s Teachers College who studies state assessment systems, said he’s generally neutral when it comes to Florida’s 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.
“It’s not providing adequate credit for the progress that they are able to make with students who are challenging to educate,” Pallas said.
Before resigning as education commissioner — following a grade-fixing scandal from his former post in Indiana — Bennett acknowledged that Florida might want to fine-tune how it determines a school’s “growth” score.
But the Department of Education’s director of Accountability and Policy Research, Jane Fletcher, disagrees that Florida’s definition of growth favors wealthy schools.
As a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Broward’s Deerfield Beach Elementary, Rosemarie Jensen remembers teaching students from both well-off homes and from the poorer neighborhood immediately surrounding the school. The children from affluent families were noticeably more comfortable with both reading a book and the simple act of holding a book, Jensen said.
In education research circles, the number of books in the home is viewed as a key predictor of student performance.
Jensen recalls a student who came from a less-stable background, and who every day would run out of energy by the afternoon. Eventually, Jensen found out that no one was putting the boy to bed at night, and so he’d stay up late and then go to school exhausted.
Jensen focused on engaging the child as much as possible in the morning, while he was still alert, and she allowed for occasional afternoon naps. On the days when he came to school noticeably hungry, Jensen bought him snacks.
“He was actually a really smart little cookie,” Jensen said. “He was doing very well by the end of the year.”
Jensen left teaching to start a family just as former Gov. Jeb Bush’s school reforms (including school grades) were taking effect. Broward teachers at the time, she said, were giving each other advice on how to transfer to a safe school — one that would avoid the dreaded F grade.
“Go west,” they said, referring to Broward’s more-affluent western suburbs, where poverty rates were lower and a better school grade was essentially guaranteed.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who was born in Portugal to a family that he says lived in “abject poverty,” said it’s indisputable that children growing up in poor households are more likely to struggle in school than peers from upper-income families. Carvalho complains that Florida’s system of grading and funding schools doesn’t appropriately consider income.
“Just as much as poverty can’t be an excuse, the exclusion of poverty as a factor is immoral,” he said.
There is much at stake in the letter grade a school receives. Schools with A grades find it easier to attract new students, and teachers are rewarded with performance bonuses. Schools with F grades (or repeated Ds) end up in a fight for their very survival. If student test scores don’t improve, teachers and principals may be replaced, and ultimately the school could be closed.
Broward’s school district closed two failing schools last year — Arthur Ashe Middle School and Lauderdale Manors Elementary. The schools were located about a mile apart in the same impoverished section of Fort Lauderdale. Lauderdale Manors was the sixth-poorest out of Broward’s 288 schools, with roughly 98 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch. Eligibility for free or reduced lunch varies by family size — for a family of four, household income must be less than $43,568.
Matthew Ladner, a senior advisor for policy and research at Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education think tank, said questions over the letter-grade system’s fairness are less important than its strong track record of benefiting the underprivileged. Though Ladner acknowledged that an “achievement gap” between wealthy and poor students exists, he said the educational reforms Florida began under Bush have helped, not hurt, poor communities.
Ladner cited Florida’s big jumps on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam since the late 1990s. The NAEP exam, often referred to the “nation’s report card,” is well-known and widely respected.
Since 1998, Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores are up 9 percent, going from below the national average (206 points) to slightly above the national average (225 points). Though poor students still score lower than their peers, that gap has shrunk from 29 points in 1998 to 23 points in 2011, the most recent year for which results are available.
Florida’s improved student performance by low-income students serves as its own anti-poverty program, Ladner said, as those children are more likely to succeed as adults and rise up the socioeconomic ladder.
“The bottom line is that poor kids in Florida today are scoring much higher,” Ladner said. “They’re far more likely to graduate from high school today. This is not theoretical. It’s all already happened in Florida.”
Some have suggested that other factors present during Bush’s tenure also played a role — such as a dramatic increase in per-pupil student funding, thanks to the real estate boom. When the recession kicked in, and student funding plummeted, Florida’s test scores dipped slightly.
Despite the economy now somewhat stabilizing, per-pupil funding in Florida hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels, and federal budget cuts have hurt the Head Start preschool program, which targets low-income children.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said some of the responsibility for boosting student achievement ultimately falls on parents. Runcie cited research that tracked the amount of words spoken to children during their early years, with the results separated by income.
“The difference between low-income and high is 31 million words, by the time they’re 3 years old,” Runcie said. “That whole piece of reading to your kids, having conversations with them at an early age, is a huge thing.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with The Miami Herald.