Board approves school grade changes after six hours of debate

Feb 28, 2012

The State Board of Education has approved a much-debated series of changes to Florida’s process for grading schools. The changes come after the Federal Government allowed the state to break free from the No Child Left Behind school accountability law. But Lynn Hatter reports, the board continues to struggle with what to do with students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

The exemption to the No Child Left Behind Law means that Florida can use its own school accountability system, school grades, to judge public education.  But that waiver comes with strings attached—most notably, the inclusion of all English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities into the state’s grading formula. And from the beginning, how to do that drew intense debate.

Orlando parent and disability advocate Sara Lopez Sequenzia said the state needs to account for the fact that not every child is the same. 

“I’ll never forget when Alaina finally got a one on the FCAT because for her the first two tries, she was un-measurable. So when she got a one in reading and the school told me, Alana got a one, I was like Yes! Yes! And the school thought I was insane. But she was finally measurable.”

Sequenzia discussed the impact of the state’s FCAT on her younger daughter Alaina, who is disabled.

“Alaina makes learning gains every year. But she’ll never reach a performance level acceptable to the state.   So personally, I have issue, when you talk about this for all students—it’s NOT for all students. It’s for my Isabelle, and it’s for my Jose, but it will never be for my Alaina.”

The Board approved its plan to include students with disabilities and English Language Learners in the accountability system but what’s left to decide is how they’ll fit in to the grading system. To resolve the issue, the board has come up with a task force to make recommendations on how to measure that impact. 

The panel also changed another provision which would have granted automatic “F” grades to schools where less than a quarter of students are reading on grade level. It’s been referred to as the “F” –trigger, a term Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson found offensive.

 “Let’s talk about the so-called F-Trigger. It is inappropriate to use the term trigger, or any term in reference to a weapon. I’ve always called it Parent Empowerment. So the so-called “trigger”, you won’t hear that from me.”

School District Superintendents like Miami’s Alberto Carvalho opposed the automatic “F” plan. Carvalho, who speaks five languages, said in his district there are children who get a 1-2 on the reading test, but score high on other areas like math.

The issue is reading proficiency. If I were asked to sit for an exam given entirely in Spanish and expected to perform as well as a native Spanish speaker, I would fail the exam. I speak it beautifully, but I would fail the exam.”

And the Florida Education Association, the state teacher’s union agreed. Florida has a large amount of students whose second language is English. And several speakers testified that it takes longer for those students to learn English. And, even when they do—there is a difference between what is spoken, and what appears on a test. However, the Board’s Sally Bradshaw said this:

 “I don’t understand how the Florida Education Association can think it’s okay to have an “A” school where 75-percent of our students can’t read. To me, that’s just irresponsible at best.”

The board later softened the language to say that says schools with a grade of “D” or higher must have at least a quarter of their students’ scoring at or above a Level 3 on FCAT Reading test. Schools that don’t meet the 25-percent threshold could see their grade drop down a letter.  The panel also changed another proposal that would have lowered a schools’ grade if the lowest 25-percent of students didn’t make learning gains. Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson called for that change.  

I’ve heard what you had to say, I’ve looked at your proposals for the lowest 25-percent of students—reading, math, science, across the board. That’s for one year, we will waive any impact that will have on your school grade. We’ll waive it. We’ll make it happen.”

The State Board also removed the high school science from the list of things calculated in a school’s grade. Science is being removed because the state eliminated its 11th grade Science FCAT test—and it’s replacement—the Biology end-course exam, hasn’t been fully implemented yet.