Florida school grades drop under new formula

Even though student test scores have held steady — and are in some cases rising — Florida has a record-high 107 F-rated schools this year, state education leaders announced on Friday.

That has put supporters of Florida’s A-to-F grading system on the defensive. And the total number of failing schools only stands to get larger, as letter grades for high schools and some combination schools haven’t been tabulated yet.

The drop in school grades is a result of dozens of changes to the school-grading formula in recent years, at least some of which made it more difficult for schools to perform well. The state says it is “raising the bar” to make sure students are fully prepared for college or a career, but the constantly shifting standards have left school districts and school administrators crying foul.

“If you look at the key indicators, we did go up,” said Kathleen John-Louissaint, principal of Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. “We are doing well … the grade doesn’t really reflect what we’re really doing as a school.”

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said, “There is no validity necessarily attached to this year’s A, B, C, D or F.”

Morningside, which dropped this year from a B to a C, had higher math and reading scores for third grade, and higher science scores for fifth grade. Fourth-grade students performed much better on their writing exam, except the state didn’t give Morningside credit for the improved writing performance.

The school’s writing scores are a microcosm of how Florida’s school grades can be counterintuitive. Last year, Florida graded schools based on the number of students who earned a score of 3 or higher on the writing test. The percentage at Morningside was in the low 70s.

This year, about 86 percent of students earned a 3 or higher on the test — and this year Morningside’s scores included those of more students who are disabled or still learning English.

Aiming for increased rigor, Florida this year raised the passing score on its writing exam to 3.5. Only about 46 percent of Morningside’s students scored that high, so the school was punished for having a lower pass rate, even though the overall writing scores of students were higher.

With public skepticism growing about the validity of Florida’s A-to-F grading system, the dominant question has become: Are public schools really failing, or is it the state’s letter-grade system that deserves an F?

Earlier this month, the Florida Board of Education took the rare step of questioning its own credibility, as some members of the board said the grading formula has been tweaked so thoroughly and so often that it is no longer statistically valid.

Nevertheless, Florida is still issuing letter grades this year, and schools that receive a failing grade may experience dramatic changes. Schools with a history of failing grades can be forced to hire new teachers and staff. In some cases, failing schools are closed altogether. Earlier this year, Broward’s school district closed two public schools (Fort Lauderdale’s Lauderdale Manors Elementary and Arthur Ashe Middle) because of failing school grades.

Preliminary grades released Friday for Miami-Dade show that, including both district-run schools and charters, 62 schools received a D or F — 48 D’s and 14 F’s. That’s an increase of about 7 percentage points. Of the 14 F schools, four are charters.

Broward’s number of D and F schools are up about 14 percentage points — 36 D’s and 13 F’s, under the preliminary grades. Four are charters.

The number of A schools declined in both counties, too.

But Carvalho emphasized that Miami-Dade is the largest school system in the state, with a large population of poor students, yet still lost a smaller percentage of A-rated schools.

The state rate of loss for A-rated schools was 19 percent, Carvalho said - 14 percent for Miami-Dade and about 20 percent for Broward.

In a media conference call Friday, Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett insisted that this year’s grades accurately measure student and school performance.

“There’s no question that the schools that are A schools are unquestionably A schools,” Bennett said, adding that the same is true for schools that score at the bottom of the letter-grade scale.

Yet the state has taken steps to reduce the number of schools landing at the bottom — a response to criticism that Florida’s grading formula has become unfairly punitive.

For the second year in a row, the state Board of Education has included a “safety net” provision that prevents schools from dropping more than one letter grade in a given year. According to a Department of Education analysis, there would have been 262 F schools in Florida this year without the safety net. With the safety net, that number fell to 107.

Still, 107 F schools is a dramatic jump from only a year ago, when 40 schools in Florida received an F grade. Florida’s grading system relies largely on standardized test scores to grade schools, though high school grades — which will be released later this year — include other factors such as graduation rates.

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said he has his own way of measuring school success, and it’s dramatically different than the state’s formula. While Florida school grades are heavily influenced by students achieving certain test scores (a criteria that rewards schools whose students show up better prepared in the first place), Runcie’s primary focus is how much progress a school makes.

The different philosophy explains how Runcie touts Lauderhill’s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary as a high-performing school worth studying and emulating — even though the school’s letter grade just dropped from a D to an F.

MLK Elementary has made enormous gains in a key measurement that Broward tracks: the number of fifth-graders who score as proficient in math, reading and science. The district’s logic is that it’s not enough for a student to perform well in just one of these subjects — a child who conquers all three has a better chance of succeeding in middle school.

Two years ago, only about 1 percent of fifth-graders at the school were proficient in all three subjects. This year, that number jumped to 18 percent.

Though that number still needs improvement, Runcie said MLK’s F grade is misleading.

“There’s a lot more student growth and gains going on in there than in many other schools that have substantially higher grades,” Runcie said.