Why School Grades In Florida Are Full Of Controversy

Jul 31, 2013

Florida legislators recently enacted what they call a safety net that ensures no school's performance drops more than one letter under the state's grading system. But despite students' academic improvement, there are a record number of F-rated schools this year.

An "A" was always the gold standard.  Every student knows that the better the grade, the greater the reward, whether the reward is a gold star, a trophy or a scholarship.

It’s no different for schools.  Since 1999, Florida schools have worked to measure student learning gains and to objectively measure teacher and school performance.  An "A" school brings recognition, prestige and financial gain.

But measuring school accountability has become more difficult than anyone thought it would be.  And, as recent legislative decisions show, may carry huge political consequences.

The Florida Board of Education voted to reinstate a “safety net” which will pad student test results and prevent any individual school’s grade from dropping more than one full letter. That move reduced the number of failing schools from 262 to 107.

In 2012, 53 schools received "F" grades.

The formula used to calculate school grades is complicated.  It measures students’ scores on standardized tests and their year-to-year learning gains.  Board members voted 4-3 in an emergency conference call with Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to reinstate the safety net. 

It was a narrow victory.  Board member Kathleen Shanahan, former chief of staff to Governor Jeb Bush who ushered in school grading, said the system has become overcomplicated and is not “a statistically valid model anymore.”

“I don’t understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable,” said Sally Bradshaw, another former chief of staff to then Gov. Bush.

But frequent changes in school grading formulas can confuse parents and community members and undermine the system’s credibility.

Questions about credibility have surfaced as to whether Bennett, in order to benefit a single school, manipulated the school grade formula he helped establish in Indiana while he was in charge of that state's school system.

Emails obtained by the Associated Press reportedly show that he moved quickly to make changes to the school grading system to ensure that Christel House, a charter school run by Christel DeHaan – a major Republican donor who donated to Bennett’s campaign – would receive an "A" instead of the "C" that it would have earned under the state’s original formula.

Bennett was quick to defend himself, saying that the adjustment “had nothing to do with politics.”

And it is also true that superintendents across the state of Florida asked Bennett and the Board of Education to reinstate the safety net for school grades, which still plummeted with a record number of F-rated schools, without taking into account high school grades, which won’t be released until later this year.

High school grades are even more difficult to calculate because they include other variables, such as graduation rates and enrollment as well as success in Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses. 

The bottom line is that school grades have gone down, despite the fact that students’ test scores have held steady and, in some instances, even improved, which only adds to the confusion.  If student academic achievement is improving, many parents wonder why school grades are going down.

The answer is that Florida continues to raise the bar as it strives to better prepare students for college.  And, to complicate matters even more, the actual accountability formulas also continue becoming more and more complex. In the last 36 months alone, there have been over 36 changes.

And there are more changes on the horizon as Florida moves towards the new, more rigorous Common Core standards born out of President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiatives.  Florida is one of the states that signed up to work and develop the new standards as well as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the standardized test set to replace the FCAT.

However, in recent weeks, more and more states have decided against signing on to PARCC while Florida remains on the fence. Just last week, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sent Bennett a letter urging the state to abandon PARCC as Indiana and several other states have done.

They cite concerns, including the amount of time students will be tested and the cost of administering and grading the exams, which will replace bubble-in-the-answer tests with much more stringent exams where students, as young as third grade, are asked to write essays analyzing and synthesizing information.  These tests cannot be graded by computer, thus increasing their cost.

Although there are plenty of Democrats as well as parent and teacher groups who oppose implementing new Common Core standards, most of the states who have decided to opt out of PARCC are Republican states with Republican governors.

Whether Florida does decide to join PARCC or work to develop another test, it is unlikely that the formulas used to calculate success – and the teacher merit pay and school funding that depend on that success – will become any more straightforward or any less political.