State Politics

State board adopts FSA passing scores, new school grades formula

Emphasizing 2014-15 as a year of “transition,” the State Board of Education on Wednesday set passing scores for the controversial statewide assessment that debuted last year and also adopted a new formula for calculating school grades, which will be based in part on those standardized test results.

But board members indicated that they might revisit the school grading formula as early as this summer, once they have a year’s worth of results to compare against 2014-15 — the first year for the new Florida Standards Assessments.

“If we proceed cautiously, we do everybody a good service,” Chairwoman Marva Johnson said. “We move the ball forward a little bit . . . and we leave the opportunity to make a better decision based on all of the data.”

School boards and superintendents had urged the state board to grant schools an “incomplete” grade for last year. The inaugural administration of the FSA was plagued by technical difficulties, and without a comparison to a previous year, superintendents argued that the grades wouldn’t accurately reflect students’ performance.

But board members said they were following a directive from the Legislature, which passed a law requiring them to adopt a new way to calculate school grades.

Vice-Chairman John Padget unsuccessfully tried to persuade the board to deviate from proposals by state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. He argued that neither of her recommendations for setting achievement levels for the FSA — what the state calls “cut scores” — or for calculating school grades was tough enough to reflect the more rigorous FSA.

But the board went with Stewart’s recommendations in two 6-1 votes, rejecting Padget’s alternatives.

On the school grades issue, Padget — joined by the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Excellence in Education — sought stricter standards that would have made it more difficult for schools to receive top marks and could have more than doubled the number of schools statewide that receive “F” grades.

I think it would be wrong of us to overshoot something that we cannot reverse.

Gary Chartrand, State Board of Education member

Under the rule the board ultimately adopted, schools need to earn only 62 percent of possible points in order to receive an “A” grade. Schools will get a “C” if they receive between 41 and 53 percent. A simulation the Department of Education produced showed that the distribution of school grades under Stewart’s formula would be largely unchanged from 2014 to 2015.

Padget last week — and the foundation on Wednesday — proposed three alternative formulas, including one that would have set the benchmark for an “A” grade at 70 or above with 10 percentage points separating each letter grade. All “C” schools would have scored 50 percent or higher.

“We really think the school grading scale should reflect increases in rigor,” said Christy Hovanetz, the center’s senior policy fellow.

That plan would have resulted in 503 schools earning “F” grades, the center’s analysis showed. In 2013-14, there were 192 schools with “F” grades in Florida, the highest since the grading formula was adopted in 1999.

But some board members worried that such a formula might irreversibly set the bar too high. The Legislature recently gave the state board the power in the future to reconsider the formula in order to raise — but not lower — the standards.

“We don’t have the learning gain component,” board member Gary Chartrand said. “I think it would be wrong of us to overshoot something that we cannot reverse.”

The DOE said it plans to issue school grades for 2014-15 on Feb. 9. It estimates that 189 schools would receive “F” grades under the new formula.

The agency uses those grades to dole out school recognition dollars. In 2014, $124.1 million went to high-performing schools across Florida.

Meanwhile, under the “cut scores” adopted by the board Wednesday, more than half of students are poised to pass most of the FSAs. The FSA is given for English language arts in grades 3-10, for math in grades 3-8, and as an end-of-course exam for Algebra 1, geometry and Algebra 2.

Padget also had argued that the passing levels proposed by Stewart weren’t rigorous enough and should instead be aligned with the National Assessments of Educational Progress, a nationwide test given to only a sampling of students in every state.

That proposal drew widespread opposition, including from Stewart and superintendents throughout the state.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who’s also a member of the NAEP governing board, wrote on Facebook Tuesday night that aligning the state tests with NAEP would be “unreasonable and inappropriate,” because “NAEP assessments are much broader than our state’s criterion-referenced tests.”

Stewart’s recommended cut scores came from input by more than 300 educators and other stakeholders in Florida — a process that superintendents and school board representatives urged the board to trust and respect.

Some board members who had previously agreed with Padget said a redesigned test report, unveiled Wednesday by Stewart, helped ease their concerns about how the test results were being portrayed.

The redesigned test report seeks to more easily indicate and explain to parents how their students fared on the FSA. A Level 3 — or “satisfactory” — grade on the FSA is considered passing, a definition codified in state law. The state DOE considers Level 4 “proficient,” or the equivalent to being “college ready.”

“It’s much clearer than we’ve done in the past,” Stewart said. “It actually provides information to students and parents of: ‘What does this mean?’”