Florida releases school grades amid controversy

Florida released its school grades Friday, and Miami-Dade County and Broward counties fared pretty well.

But with the results based on a new test, new learning standards for students and a new grading formula, school officials cautioned not to compare this year to last.

Miami-Dade schools in 2014-2015 earned a B average – one percentage point away from an A. Top marks went to 38 percent of schools, and only 5 percent landed an F.

“I think we ought to recognize that, during a difficult year, Miami-Dade students and teachers not only performed, but outperformed,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Neighboring Broward County also earned a B average, with 33 percent of schools graded A but almost 10 percent slapped with an F.

“Parents should not put a lot of stock into that,” Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “We’re proud to be in a situation where we are maintaining our foundation.”

In Miami-Dade,some middle schools saw the sharpest drops, with schools like North Dade slipping from a C to an F, and Jose de Diego going from a D to an F.

The middle schools lost points for not putting more students in advanced courses, said Gisela Feild, who heads Miami-Dade’s data and research department. The district didn’t know how much “accelerated” courses would count towards school grades until well after the academic year started and students had already been assigned their classes, she said.

Some schools managed to improve their grades. Barbara Goleman Senior went from a B to an A, and Nautilus Middle moved from a C to a B.

But Feild cautioned against making year-to-year comparisons, since there is only one year of FSA test scores available and a completely different scoring system in place this year.

“Maybe they decreased, but it’s not a reflection of what teachers and administrators did in the school,” Feild said.

School leaders and parents had called on the state to skip school grades all together for 2014-2015, the first time that a brand-new, glitch-mired test was used to judge school performance.

But the state insisted that Florida law requires the grades to come out every year. They were released quietly, without notice to even the school districts.

In an email, education department spokeswoman wrote that grades “are a critical component of our state’s accountability system because they provide students, parents, educators district leaders and members of the public the information they need to help students improve.”

The grades largely rely on student performance on the Florida Standards Assessments, or FSAs.

The FSAs debuted last year amid technical glitches and questions about whether it is even a fair measure of what students have learned. The test was meant to be tougher and is based on higher standards for what students should learn in each grade.

Since there is only one year of test scores from the FSA, this year’s grades only take into account how many students scored “proficient” on the FSAs. Schools don’t get credit for learning gains – how much schools helped students improve their scores year to year.

“Despite that, on performance alone, I think Miami-Dade hit it out of the park,” Carvalho said.

District superintendents, the state PTA and the school boards association, all called for the state to issue a grade of “incomplete” to schools. Large, urban districts feared they would see grades plummet by eliminating learning gains and only focusing on student proficiency, since those districts tend to have more students who are poor and learning English.

In Broward, Sunland Park Elementary school went from an A to an F without learning gains taken into consideration.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” Runcie said.

In a bit of a compromise, state education leaders eliminated penalties for low performance this year but kept incentives in place for schools that scored well. The Florida Board of Education also set a new formula for calculating school grades, a formula largely designed to hold school grades steady during a transitional year.

All of the changes add to criticism that school grades don’t mean much, and can basically be set any way the state wants. Others argue the system’s reliance on test scores unfairly punishes schools that serve poor students, who tend to score lower.

Miami Dade PTA President Joe Gebara had a simple message for parents about this year’s marks: “Ignore it.”

“It’s a farce,” he said. “There are just too many variables and this is too fresh.”

Still, the grades are often used as a quick way to pass judgment on schools and parents often rely on them when deciding where to send their kids.

“What parents need to focus on is where their children were entering a grade level, and where they are when they’re leaving,” Gebara said. “If the metric is still the same next year, then we’ll have something to compare.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

The grade for Nautilus Middle School has been corrected.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga