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Education Officials Weigh Changes To School Grading System


School districts across Florida are anticipating another drop in school grades.

In 2008, Florida along with more than 40 other states, decided to adopt new learning goals for students, called the Common Core. Common Core standards are much harder than those the state had been using. So, in an effort to prepare for new system, the Florida Department of Education began ratcheting up its expectations for student performance.  The first major sign of trouble came last year when the board overseeing Florida’s public schools increased the proficiency score for the state writing exam… and almost 75 percent of test takers didn’t meet it:

“I wouldn’t describe it as “eating crow, I would describe is as a lack of communication in preparing teachers and educators on the impact it would have,” said former State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who resigned in part because of the writing test kerfuffle.

The Board of Education quickly revised its grading policy for the writing exam, deciding to grade on a curve. It also revamped the way it graded other subjects, including reading and math. Those tests got harder to pass, too. The same year, the state also instituted a policy that said school grades couldn’t fall more than a single letter, after administrators complained the process was moving too fast. Fast forward to now, where Miami School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says he’s still worried:

“After 19 changes last year, 13 taking effect this year, five that are a carry-over from last year...My concern is when you have all these variables changing at the same time, no one has taken the time to consider the simultaneous impact of everything coming together at the same time," he said at last months Board of Education meeting.

This year’s school report card includes newly implemented end-of-course exams in Algebra 1, Geometry and Biology. Some of the old state-mandated FCAT exams have been phased out in favor of the new end-of-course tests. This year, students did much better in writing, but their scores in reading and math didn’t show much progress. And with all the changes to how tests are graded and which tests are graded, current State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett is warning of a so-called grade cliff:

“There will be another technical correction in the future, and the next technical correction will be the administration of new assessments. That calculation goes far beyond these calculations.” 

All of the changes to Florida’s school accountability system have been made to prepare for full implementation of the Common Core in 2015. Common Core also comes with even newer exams for students to take, which will replace more of the old ones.  Those, Bennett says, could lead to yet another “cliff.”

During last month’s Board of Education Meeting, member Kathleen Shanahan warned about a disconnect in what students are learning and how they’re being tested: 

“We have to tell people there is going to be a technical correction. There are going to be a lot more C, D, and F schools, but your kids are learning more. And that’s oxymoronic to a lot of people, they don’t understand that," Shanahan said.

Now, a task force of state and local education officials is meeting to come up with a solution to the Common Core Cliff. One recommendation is for the state to reinstate its one-grade drop rule.

Florida’s Common Core implementation and numerous testing changes have converged to create a “perfect storm” of problems for the state. The reason so many education officials are looking for a solution to the “cliff” is because, as Hillsboro County School Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia says, a lot is at stake for schools:

“There is big money in accountability in Florida, and I think that’s important thing as well. Those schools that do particularly well, they can anticipate that they’ll have the opportunity....so it’s extremely important we get this right.”   

Poor performers are at risk of being overhauled by having their administrators removed, being converted into a private or charter schools or being shut down completely.

School report cards are due out later this month, and some districts have estimated a third of their schools will see grade drops. Some education officials are calling for a pause to the state’s school accountability system until all the changes are fully in place. Others want the system overhauled altogether.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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