July 11, 2014

Florida school grades: More A’s but also F’s

The state as well as Miami-Dade County touted progress — but Common Core tests next year might bring big changes and challenges.

Florida’s school grades for elementary and middle schools were released Friday — providing a dose of both good and bad news.

More than a third of Florida schools, 962 of them, are A-rated. Just 7 percent of schools finished with an F but those also represent the fast-growing category. The numbers of failing schools rose 68 percent to a record 178 schools statewide — in part because of the quirks of the state’s complicated grading formula.

State education officials focused on the positive, with Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart calling it “great news” that A-rated schools are on the rise. Compared to last year, the number of A schools increased 25 percent.

“I appreciate the work by the educators and families and students and know they will continue to improve in the future even as we transition to a new grading system,” Stewart said in a statement.

Next year is likely to bring much greater fluctuations in the letter grades that schools receive, as Florida will be switching to new Common Core exams. The exams are expected to be more difficult — in New York state, for example, almost 70 percent of students have failed the new Common Core tests, sparking a growing public backlash there.

Ultimately, this year’s school grades may represent the calm before the storm.

In both Miami-Dade and Broward, this year’s results were similar to the statewide trend, with both A’s and F’s increasing. But Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho was quick to boast that his school system fared better than some others.

On a large poster board during a press conference at Miami-Dade’s school district headquarters, the district displayed a chart showing that Miami-Dade’s increase in A’s was slightly larger than the state’s, and its increase in F’s was lower. The chart also listed the scores for Broward, Palm Beach, and Duval counties — with none performing as well as Miami-Dade.

“Even though we did see some declines across the state, Miami-Dade has once again surged in a big way,” Carvalho said.

Gwendolyn Haynes-Evans, principal of Shadowlawn Elementary in Miami, said her school's increase from F to C started with parents who became more involved.

“It’s getting the parents to buy in,” she said. “We held many workshops.”

Haynes-Evans also credited volunteering from local community groups, through reading and tutoring programs, and more district support for Shadowlawn's improvement.

The increase in this year’s F grades is somewhat misleading, as it suggests a sudden drop in performance that doesn’t appear to have actually occurred.

In Broward, for example, district officials said student performance has been steadily increasing, yet the 24 F schools, including five charters, is nearly double the previous year. In Miami-Dade, the number of F schools rose from 14 to 22. That includes 14 traditional schools, five charters and three alternative schools that a district spokesman said aren’t always counted in the grades.

Why the statewide spike in F schools? For the past couple of years, Florida has protected schools from having their grade drop by more than one letter grade per year, which is known as the “safety net” rule. In practice, it means that a school with test scores in the F range would be graded D if it was a C-rated school the prior year.

But in the following year, if the test scores stay the same, that school would drop from a D to an F. Even the safety net can’t prevent the inevitable.

“We had this protection of one-letter grade drop,” said Nathan Balasubramanian, the Broward district’s testing guru. “This can only get you so far.”

In some instances, Broward officials said, schools are improving, but not fast enough to meet the higher standards in Florida’s ever-changing grade formula. And so despite that improvement, the school’s grade slips.

Florida’s constant changes to its school grade formula are one of many reasons why the annual grades are greeted with some skepticism — even school districts sometimes tell parents not to take the grades at face value.

There also is a strong connection between student poverty levels and the grade that a school receives. Research has shown that more-affluent students perform better on standardized tests (for a variety of reasons), and it is test scores that are the primary driver of Florida’s school grades.

A Miami Herald analysis performed last year found that South Florida’s wealthiest schools have never received an F grade, and the region’s poorest schools typically face an uphill battle to even get a C. Schools that get repeated F’s are forced by the state to implement radical changes, which can range from bringing in new staff to closing the school altogether.

It’s unclear whether those forced changes typically lead to improvement. Florida Department of Education officials could not immediately provide a breakdown of how schools have fared following an overhaul. In Broward, the district’s recent results from school shake-ups have been mixed.

Rosemarie Jensen, a Parkland parent and former teacher, called it “upsetting” that the state places so much importance on test scores. Jensen said her son, who just completed the eighth grade, has a learning disability.

“He will never do well on a standardized test. He just won’t,” Jensen said. “That’s not a reflection of how hard his teachers work with him.”

But other parents still give weight to school grades — such as Elizabeth Gonzalez, a 42-year old paralegal who lives in Miami. Her son will be starting ninth grade at Coral Gables Senior High School.

Gonzalez said her family will be moving soon, and she will take into account school grades when choosing where to live.

“I just want to make sure that the school is doing good by the kids,” she said.

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.

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