School districts not pleased with state's new rating system

Jan 23, 2012

The Florida Department of Education has released a new ranking scale that rates school districts from highest-to-lowest.  Lynn Hatter reports the rankings are coming under fire from school district superintendents who say it’s not a fair way to look at how well students are doing.

Three years ago, the Jefferson County school district was bankrupt, and paychecks for teachers were bouncing.  It was labeled as a failing district according to the state and its school officials watched as many students jumped across county lines to Leon and Wakulla — both A- rated school systems. But in two years Jefferson managed to pull itself out of its financial and academic rut. It no longer has a deficit, and the system has gone from an F to a C. Jefferson’s Superintendent Bill Brumfield says the district has worked hard to shed its failing-school image, and it’s come a long way.

 “We have bright kids. We had children just last week, three seniors, who got accepted to FSU. And there are only 50 seniors. We are working hard here. We have gone from an F district to A C district. And we’re going to be B district. And we’re working very hard. If people would just give us a chance.”

 The Jefferson school system shed teachers, switched around principles, and even established special science and technology-based career academies at its schools. Students are now graduating with nursing and engineering based certifications so they can go straight into the workforce. But you wouldn’t know all that by looking at the state’s newest way of ranking schools. The Florida Department of Education has released a scorecard that lists districts from highest-to- lowest based on the standardized FCAT test. And Jefferson, despite its struggle, finds itself second-to-last out of 67 school districts in the state. Brumfield says, it’s a blow.

“I believe it’s really going to hurt the smaller districts. I will say this. I’ve talked with one individual in the DOE that agrees with me and they think it’s really unfair the way we’re treated, the smaller districts.”

And that’s the problem that many superintendents and education officials have with the state’s newest scorecard.  At the bottom of the list, along with Jefferson County, is Madison, Gadsden, Hendry,  DeSoto and Hamilton. All of those counties are rural. All of them are small. And the majority of them teach a largely poor, disabled and/or minority student population also known as sub-groups.

 “And I know people don’t want to address it all the time, especially in Tallahassee but it’s a nationwide concern.”

That’s Okaloosa school superintendent Alexis Tibbetts, the incoming President of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Okaloosa is an A-rated district according to the state, and it’s at number 6 on the state ranking list.  But Tibbetts says these four groups of students are also the lowest academic performers, not only in Florida, but across the nation.

“School districts that have fewer of those subgroups tend to perform higher. Now, that’s not an excuse, but the fact still remains that kids in poverty, our English-language learners and our students with disabilities, do not perform as well as other students in school systems.”

Florida Department of Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson defends the state’s new ranking system.

“What I’d hate to do is to see people trying to use poverty and socio-economic status alone as a factor of why these children can’t achieve. That would go against 10 years’ worth of work that Florida has put in place to make sure these subgroups can achieve.”

Robinson says while the correlations between low socio-economic status and the rankings does exist, it shouldn’t be the only thing that people look at when breaking down the numbers. He says the goal is to spark a conversation on how to make schools better and open the information up to larger audiences.

 “You can always have more dialogue and better informed dialogue. For example, while we all know the districts that have A’s, we’ve now identified 30 districts with A’s and we now can see who is the fifth “A” and who is the sixth “A”. And I can tell you that there are some calls I’ve received from people who said, I didn’t know my district had this grade, and I was unaware of where the district ranked according to others.”

Robinson says the department used existing data that was already available and simply put it into an easy-to-read format. In a release, Governor Rick Scott says the new list allows taxpayers to see their investment in education at work. 

Districts with national notoriety, like Hillsboro County, which was the recipient of a major education grant a few years ago, and often highlighted as the state’s testing ground for education reform, is tied at the number 38 spot with on the list.

Dade County, known for its work with Hispanic students and English-language learners, is in the 37 spot.  And St. Johns, the county directly south of Duval, grabs the number one spot.