State admits school grading system flawed
Florida's public school grades, highly anticipated by parents as a way to measure quality, are no longer an accurate barometer of how well or how poorly a school performs, the state admitted Tuesday. The grades, which affect everything from teacher pay to property values, have become so diluted they no longer serve their intended goal – measuring a school's educational worth, the state said. So for the second straight year, no school will be permitted to drop more than one letter grade, possibly reducing the state's number of failing schools from 242 to 108 by one estimate. School grades are due later this month and many A and B schools were expected to drop to a C or D because of tougher cutoff scores on the writing portion of the FCAT and mediocre performances in reading and math. Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie applauded the one-letter-drop decision, saying "the vast majority of performance is not falling precipitously in a single year and the accountability system should reflect what's on in the schools." Runcie said the current system relies too much on arbitrary cutoff scores rather than student improvement. Last year the state increased the passing writing score from a 3 to a 3.5 out of a possible 6 – until the scores plummeted and it returned to a 3. This year, it's going back up to a 3.5. "Who's to say it shouldn't be a 3.2? What's the scientific logic where you put the [cutoff]?" he asked. The state grades are important to schools, as they can affect enrollment. Teachers at schools that get As or which see improvements are eligible for bonuses. They grades also can affect property values since many families look to move into neighborhoods with A-rated schools. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said the one letter "safety net" is a transition plan until the state develops a more permanent grading system next year based on a new set of national standards called Common Core. Some members of the State Board of Education wanted to overhaul the whole system, which Bennett said there was not enough time to do. One board member suggested issuing no grades at all this year, which Bennett said would be prohibited under state law.
"We've overcomplicated the model," said veteran board member Kathleen Shanahan, once the chief of staff for former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely considered the author of Florida's school grading system. "I am struggling with the integrity of the accountability system … and the reliability of the grades." Even board Chairman Gary Chartrand, who voted to pad the grades, harbored doubts. "I don't think the truth is being revealed in the current grading system," he said.
School grading system needs more than a Band-Aid
When one of Florida's staunchest defenders of school accountability says the state needs to throw out its formula for grading schools, lawmakers should pay attention. The state Board of Education on Tuesday narrowly approved another round of changes to the A+ Plan school grading formula to ensure that no school's 2012-13 grade drops by more than one letter grade this year from last. But the decision came about only after a surreal discussion that suggested more allegiance to a bureaucratic construct than real accountability. The best hope now is that lawmakers and education officials will do a better job as they build a new accountability formula starting in 2014-15 based on Common Core State Standards exams. It would have been unthinkable a few years ago for Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, to say the A+ system had become invalid. But that's what she said Tuesday, suggesting the state would be better off just not giving grades for a year as the board considered for a second time delaying the impact of tougher FCAT passage scores. "We've overcomplicated the model, and I don't think it's a statistically valid model" anymore, she said. But four of the other six board members embraced new Education Commissioner Tony Bennett's recommendation to tweak the formula once again to ensure that no school's grade dropped precipitously. Some of the state's most respected superintendents had warned that the ratcheting up of FCAT passage scores threatened to penalize even schools that were seeing improvements in student performance. In other words, their grades could have dropped even as their scores rose. Bennett rejected Shanahan's suggestion that the state just take a year off from issuing grades, saying state law required them. Then he added, apparently not meaning to be ironic: "I believe as a purist on accountability that taking a break from accountability is very simply bad policy," Bennett said. That sentiment is only valid if the accountability is actually transparent and consistent, something no one in Tallahassee even tries to argue anymore. So school grades that will be released this month may have little correlation to reality. Unfortunately, they will have real impacts on each school's funding and teacher bonuses. The school grading system needs some accountability of its own. Until the state comes up with a meaningful, rational system of school grades, an A won't be an A, and the system itself will continue to earn a failing grade. You could give it an F.
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Times-Union keeps fighting for release of teacher evaluation data
A Florida appeals court is weighing whether a newspaper should have access to data used in evaluating schoolteachers. The data in question are part of the state’s controversial new teacher assessments, and The Florida Times-Union wants the public to be able to evaluate the state’s methods. In court Tuesday, Florida Times-Union lawyer Jenn Mansfield said the teacher data case is making strange bedfellows of two frequent enemies: the Florida Department of Education and the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association. The two are at odds over new teacher evaluation methods. But Mansfield said the two sides agree on keeping those methods secret. “We have these two contrary positions that are in heated public debate right now on how to best manage our schools and educate our children,” she said, “and yet neither side wants the only information that the public could use to determine, ‘Is this the proper course?’” Mansfield said it seems the state and the union are both afraid the data could prove their position wrong. The case stems from the newspaper’s public records request for data the state aggregates and then supplies to school districts. Teachers’ pay and job security are tied, in part, to a reading of that data. Teachers association lawyer Jennifer Blohm said figures held by school districts are already exempt from public records -- and that shouldn’t change just because the state performs the data-aggregation service. “Just because the school districts haven’t spent the millions of dollars to get a mainframe to do these calculations themselves that suddenly that means this 40-year-plus exemption that has been there doesn’t apply anymore,” she said. But judges on the First District Appeals Court panel pointed out the public records law doesn’t say anything about data held by the state. There’s no timetable for the Florida appeals court to make a decision in the case.
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