Florida’s formula for grading its schools — hailed as a model nationwide — may be rewritten again this year to include a controversial “safety net” that would keep grades from dropping more than one letter. But the 11th-hour wrangling over the “accountability formula” is drawing attention far beyond Florida.
“We’re definitely watching,” said Eric Lerum, vice president of national policy for the Washington, D.C.-based reform advocacy group Students First. “The rest of the country is watching as well.”
Buoyed by Florida’s rising fourth-grade reading scores and an early jump on what’s now a national movement, more than a dozen states have moved in the last three years to mimic the Sunshine State’s polarizing school grades system. And Florida’s standing has helped propel former Gov. Jeb Bush into a national force on education policy.
The state Board of Education will meet Tuesday to consider recommendations that they reinstitute a safety net and change the way test scores are treated at special education centers.
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The potential changes are few in comparison to the vast complexity of Florida’s school grading system, which has seen more than two dozen amendments in the last two years. But should the board agree, it would be the second straight year it’s changed the system under pressure — and after the release of test scores, on the eve of issuing school grades.
Last year, the state also revised hundreds of school grades after miscalculations.
Those recent stumbles have only fueled attacks and skepticism of Florida’s education reforms.
“We have been grappling with this for 15 years, and I’m concerned that if we don’t get a grip on this quickly, our accountability system’s credibility is at risk,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “Florida can’t afford that. We’re at a critical stage in our education history here, and we’ve got to grab a hold of it.”
More is at stake than ever. Teachers’ evaluations and compensation are tied to test results, administrators are held accountable for school grades, and low-performing schools can be overhauled or shuttered when they fail to improve their standing.
But it’s the concern that Florida is losing control over the system that has underlined this year’s debate over whether the school grading formula needs even more tweaking.
School grades are now mainly based on results and year-to-year gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. High school grades also consider graduation rates and the number of Advanced Placement classes.
After a slew of rigor-enhancing amendments, school superintendents have warned that by changing so much in so short a period, the state board was threatening to undercut schools that were holding stable or even improving.
The calls for last-minute changes have put Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the board in a difficult spot. On one hand, they can leave the formula unchanged and watch school grades drop, perhaps more than anyone expected. Or they can enact Bennett’s “safety net” recommendation — which even he recently said “kind of isn’t in the spirit of transparency” — and likely reignite questions that they’re playing with the results.
In a memo released Friday, Bennett said he made his recommendations, based on the advice of a task force, “not to soften the blow of higher standards or to reduce the number of failing schools.” His intention, he said, was to ensure “the credibility and viability of Florida’s accountability system,” which is even more important as the state moves to enact sweeping changes through the Common Core State Standards.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, a task force member who called on the state months ago to reconsider some aspects of its accountability formula, said Bennett made the right call. He said the state might now leave itself open to criticism, but avoid a situation where education officials are left to explain to parents that their children’s school received better test scores but a worse grade.
“This may have national implications because Florida is a leader in this accountability-driven reform movement,” he said. “There’s a risk of criticism but a much smaller risk than if he’d opted not to change anything at this point.”
Rick Hess, of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, agreed. He said Florida’s tinkering with its grading formula is “insider baseball” to people outside the state. But he said states moving to the school grade model can expect to run through the same dilemma as they attempt to push their education standards.
“There’s a fundamental tension for any state board in wrestling with this,” he said. “On the one hand, there’s an admirable desire to not engage in grade inflation, and there’s a concern in many places that we’ve not set the bar high enough, so there’s a push to raise expectations accordingly. The flip side of that is you risk setting expectations where parents look at a school and say it looks like a good school, but the grade is lower than it should be. That tends to undermine confidence in these systems.”
There are many critics of Florida’s school reforms who would argue that the state has lost faith and understanding in school grades. But the desire to maintain belief that an “A” is an “A” has led even Bush acolytes to consider that perhaps Florida’s grading system has become too complicated to communicate to parents.
“We can have all the accountability we want, but if nobody understands it, we’re not going to have anybody advocate for it,” State Board member Kathleen Shanahan, Bush’s former chief of staff, said last month.
Patricia Levesque, CEO of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, has also discussed the possibility of simplifying some aspects of the state’s school grading formula, though she said this year’s drama ignores that, despite higher writing scores, the state saw flat or diminished reading and math scores.
“Regardless of what happens, the state is going to move forward,” she said, adding that critics around the country will pick apart the state board’s decision, no matter what that is.
That’s probably the case, as states like Virginia and New Mexico fight the same battles over school accountability and what in those cases are new grading systems. Florida’s system was evoked, and Levesque’s foundation consulted, in establishing school grades in both states.
Howie Morales, a New Mexico state senator who tried this year to throw out the state’s A-through-F formula, said he’s paying attention.
“If the nucleus where all this came from is struggling with it, then there’s discussions that we need to have about a more reliable system in New Mexico,” he said.
And in Virginia, which passed an A-through-F plan this year, Bristol schools Superintendent Mark Lineburg said any stumbles in Florida should be a caution.
“If Florida can’t get it right,” he said, “then are we really going to continue with this?”