Tweak Florida’s new grading system

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade prepare for the state assessments.
Language arts students at Carver Middle School in Miami-Dade prepare for the state assessments. Miami Herald File

The value of the new letter grades assigned to Florida schools last week comes with a major caveat. This is only the second year of the new tests based on Florida Standards, the state’s reworking of Common Core, and this year the Florida Department of Education toughened the already complex grading standards.

Last year, the state did not penalize schools with failing marks for several consecutive years because of the flawed rollout of the new tests and comparisons to past marks would have been futile and wrong. But this year, schools face a variety of bleak setbacks, even closure.

There was good news in Miami Dade. The district’s overall grade rose to a B. And the state’s largest district cut its number of F-rated schools by more than half, while outperforming the state and other large districts in the percentage of A-rated schools — a tribute to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the district’s staff, teachers and school board members.

School leaders across the state had braced for a slide in grades, especially among high schools, after the Florida Department of Education changed the grading formula. Still, Miami-Dade and Broward counties maintained a B average across all district schools.

Across the state, school districts can celebrate the notable number of schools that rose at least one grade. In Miami-Dade, more than half of all schools earned an A or B.

One success story was Shadowlawn Elementary near Little Haiti. The school boosted its grade from an F to a B. Congratulations are in order to that school’s principal, teachers and students.

To parents, school grades are used as a quick way to measure performance, but Florida’s system has plenty of critics who note test performance can be greatly impacted by poverty, community violence and whether a child is learning English as a second language.

Still, the new grading standards this year are reflected in the decline in school marks from the previous year. Those drops followed the statewide pattern as the number of A schools fell dramatically. The culprit looks to be the state’s more demanding method for determining “learning gains.”

The state ranks students in levels from one to five, the latter being the highest-performing students. Learning gains are no longer calculated by labeling a student’s new raw score a learning gain, should the mark be identical to levels scored the previous year.

Now, raw scores must improve to earn a learning gain. Advancing to a higher level certainly achieves that gain. That major change is spurring district adjustments to score higher school grades.

Overall, the state applauded the improvements that districts managed to accomplish. The most notable: The number of schools receiving an F fell by half, from 204 to 103.

More than 1,100 schools maintained an A or increased their grade.

That won’t quell the criticism. Some district superintendents are calling this new grading system complicated and confusing and in need of a total overhaul, but DOE is not backing down — unlike in previous years when the agency admitted mistakes and made some adjustments. That should occur again.

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Bradenton Herald.