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Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as In First for States, Florida Releases Graded 'Report Cards' for Schools

In First for States, Florida Releases Graded 'Report Cards' for Schools

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When Florida recently released its first school-by-school "report card," the grading trends mirrored those for a tough exam: a few strong performers on top, a smattering of underachievers on the bottom, and nearly half the state's 2,500 schools earning C's.

The scores, released June 24, are an attention-getting aspect of a new statewide accountability system that promises cash rewards to high-performing schools and state-financed vouchers to students attending those that fail.

Florida assigned each public school an A, B, C, D, or F, based largely on how it measured up to the state's predetermined standards for competency on the reading and mathematics sections of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, as well as a state writing test. Schools receiving A's also had to demonstrate that their student absences, suspensions, and dropout rates fell below state averages.

School officials were pleased to see that only 78 schools were given F's--fewer than half as many as the state education department had projected earlier this spring, said Karen Chandler, a spokeswoman for the department. The state has yet to analyze its data to pinpoint any similarities between failing schools. A more detailed report is due out in the fall.

"Of course, we would be thrilled not to have any schools with D's or F's," Ms. Chandler added. "But [the results] do show that a lot of schools worked hard to meet the criteria."

State Aid

While other states have adopted quality rankings for their schools, Florida is the first to assign specific letter grades to all of its schools. The state assigned an F to any school that didn't measure up to the minimum standards for school performance in all three subject areas. According to school reform legislation backed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and passed by the legislature in April, the state will offer vouchers worth about $4,000 each to students attending schools that receive F's two times in four years. The students may then use the vouchers to pay tuition at private or religious schools, or to transfer to a qualified public school. ("Florida OKs First Statewide Voucher Plan," May 5, 1999.)

Pupils in two elementary schools only, both in Pensacola, will qualify for tuition vouchers this fall. The two schools qualified for the program because they were on a previous list of low-performing schools and had failed to raise test scores.

Instead of feeling stigmatized, many of those working in the schools that received D's or F's are simply feeling anxious to improve, said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "Everybody is saying, 'We've been identified, now let's get to work and do something about it,' " Mr. Blanton said. "Our test scores and standards are higher than anyone else in the country right now. A grade of C in Florida is going to be a B-plus in any other state."

District and state officials are also expected to give low-graded schools priority in obtaining extra state aid. F-graded schools will be eligible for improvement grants of up to $25,000, as well as technical assistance. If they show marked improvement in test scores next spring, they could also be eligible for incentive grants of up to $100 per student. The 185 schools that received A's this year already qualify for such grants.

In addition, the new school reform package includes a $527 million pot that districts can use to pay for a variety of remedial efforts, including summer school, after-school tutoring, and mentoring programs. Though districts have flexibility in how they target the resources, state officials say they anticipate that districts will direct the money first toward remedial programs in their low-scoring schools.

Still, some educators say they could do without the stigma that the failing, or F, grade conveys.

"We reject labels that hurt," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "The failing label is more stigmatizing than motivating. Standardized tests ... are designed to be a diagnostic tool, not a rating system."

Unfair Comparisons

Some also complained that D or F labels often fail to reflect the challenging social and economic barriers that low-scoring schools in low-income areas must confront.

In the 347,000-student Miami-Dade County district, for example, 26 schools received failing grades--a third of all such schools statewide. Administrators there say the results reflect an enrollment that includes more students from families in poverty and with limited English skills than any other Florida district's.

"The legislative body needs to understand that it's easy to pass judgment when you're standing outside of a system," said Henry Fraind, the deputy superintendent of schools for the Miami-Dade system. "You're talking about more than 75,000 students who are foreign-born, coupled with high poverty. We need to have a system designed to absorb immigration and high poverty.

"Hold our feet to the fire, but be fair about it."

State officials say they are aware of such obstacles, but stand behind the new grading system.

"There are some extra challenges in some of the inner-city and rural areas," Ms. Chandler of the education department said. "Miami-Dade has a challenge, and we recognize that. More importantly, Miami-Dade recognizes that."

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Page 18

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