State list of individual public schools rankles advocates

Jan 30, 2012

The Florida Department of Education is following up on its controversial ranking of school districts, by ranking individual schools. Lynn Hatter reports the results have charter schools and specialty schools taking up a large chunk of the top 10 list of public schools.

The Department of Education sorts schools into groups-- elementary, middle, high, and combination. It then lists all the schools in rank order—from the number one elementary school in the state, to number 1795, and so on in each category.  In all, more than three-thousand public schools have been assigned a number according to how well students perform on the state’s FCAT standardized test.

The release of the school-by-school ranking follows last week’s release of a district list. In a video message Department of Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson explains the rankings this way:

 “To have a conversation on what we can do as citizens to support our public school system and to support reform and innovation across the area.”

But the lists have drawn criticism from public school advocates. In the district ranking—the criticism was that poorer districts fell to the bottom of the ranking scale, and that the state didn’t look at the socio-economic factors of the students.

There is a higher ratio of magnet and charter schools in each category’s Top 10. Magnet schools have an edge because they cater to students interested in a specialty area—like math and science, or the arts.  And charters get a boost according to critics, because they have greater flexibility in who they employ and how they teach. Patricia Levesque heads the Foundation for Florida’s future, a pro-charter school lobbying group founded by former governor Jeb Bush. She says the fact that charters and magnet schools come out on top shouldn’t be a surprise.

 “ Parents and students have a choice of whether they want to send their students to those schools. So it makes sense that competition through choice produces higher performing schools.”

 But he Florida Education Association, a teacher’s union, is not impressed with the Department’s newest school measurement tool. Spokesman Mark Pudlow says the rankings are a misuse of the state’s standardized FCAT test, and he question’s the intent behind the move.

 “And to use a standardized test that was never designed to do any of these things, and to use it as a cudgel against school districts, teachers, students and schools, it’s a misuse of what the test is supposed to do and it doesn’t serve anyone in the public schools.”

Pudlow is also concerned about the disproportionate number of charter and specialty schools at the top of the lists. He says the state has put more emphasis on those schools, leaving traditional public schools at a competitive disadvantage.

 “If the idea is to blow up the public school system and turn it over to for-profit charter school entities well then that makes sense, but that’s not what everyone is saying they want to do.”

Some public school officials say the lists aren’t a fair way to compare schools—and that the district should break out which schools are charters, and which are traditional public schools.  In a letter to school districts before the release of the school list, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents said it had been in contact with the Governor and Commissioner about the need to incorporate additional measures into the ranking calculation, and that the governor was receptive to the idea.

But the Foundation’s Levesque says while things like the socio-economic status of an area does play a role in education, she doesn’t believe those factors should be used as excuses.

- “I’m looking at number 16, a school in Osceola that’s ranked 16th in the state that has 87-percent of their student are minority, 67-percent of their students are free and reduced lunch.  I think there are schools that can succeed because something really fantastic is happening at that school.”

The state’s top schools are West Melborne Elementary School for Science in Brevard, Archimedean Middle Conservatory in Dade, Okaloosa’s Collegiate High School at Northwest Florida State College, The Sanibel School in Lee County, and Pine View School in Sarasota.