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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Officials Readying Repairs To Fla. School Grading System

Officials Readying Repairs To Fla. School Grading System

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Florida education leaders are moving ahead with plans to grade schools for a second year, even though proposed fixes to the system that ranks schools by quality have failed to satisfy many critics.

Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher proposed this month to revamp the grading system used this past summer. His recommendations include slight changes for next year, more the following year, and a significantly different system by 2001-02.

In general, the changes, which the state school board is scheduled to vote on next month, would make it a little easier for schools in poor communities to do well and would require more from schools trying for an A or a B.

But Mr. Gallagher reiterated that whatever changes might be made, the use of A, B, C, D, and F grades was non-negotiable. The five grades, ordered by the legislature in its last session, replace the same number of levels in the previous system for ranking school performance."

Tom Gallagher

I think a lot of people don't realize we were grading schools before this most recent round," Mr. Gallagher said. "Then we changed those five levels to letters, and now, not just educators know but everybody knows, and there's a controversy."

The system unleashed a torrent of criticism from educators and parents in hearings held Sept. 28. Many complained that the grading scheme, which is linked to monetary rewards and punishments,unfairly penalized schools with a high concentration of children from poor, non-English-speaking families who had just recently enrolled.

Change in Mobility

While other states have adopted quality rankings for their schools, Florida is the first to hand out letter grades and the first to award tuition vouchers to students in persistently failing schools. So far, pupils at two elementary schools in Pensacola have qualified for the vouchers.

Under Mr. Gallagher's proposal, grades would continue to be based largely on the proportion of children who reach benchmarks on state standardized tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. A-rated schools would also have to post rates below state averages for chronic absenteeism, dropouts, and disciplinary suspensions.

State officials responded to the criticisms with several changes.

Commissioner Gallagher's plan would give a break to schools with high student mobility by discounting the scores of students who were enrolled less than five months prior to the test. It also would put schools that had improved by a grade, as well as those with top grades, in line for a share of the millions expected to be set aside in 2000 by the legislature.

This year the legislature earmarked $30 million for recognition.And in the third year out, it would require schools to show achievement gains along with absolute achievement levels. J. Howard Hinesley, the superintendent of the Pinellas County schools, said "two or three areas [of the plan] could be improved."

Mr. Hinesley, whose 110,000-student district includes the St. Petersburg area, said he was working on specific suggestions that he hoped to present soon to state officials. He said it would make sense to scrap the improvement measures until 2001-02, when the same group of students could be compared in consecutive years. And he protested the idea of measuring a school's safety by looking for a relatively low number of suspensions when a higher number of suspensions might result in a safer school.

Mr. Hinesley, whose district earned more A's than any other district in the last round, said he expected to be joined in his recommendations by "more than a handful" of other districts.The superintendent added that a flawed system would handicap Florida in attracting teachers. "Here we are facing a major teaching shortage, and teachers are smart enough to know that this isn't what's done in other states," he said. Florida's teachers' unions have largely opposed the grading system.

Help, Not Punishment

The Florida PTA has couched its concern in even stronger terms, urging in an emergency resolution passed during its annual convention this month that state officials try again after a concerted effort to work with parents and teachers.

"I think parents want a real accurate picture, one that shows whether students have made progress or not,'' and not one that relies almost solely on standardized-test scores, said PTA President Latha Krishnaiyer.

But others say that while the negative labeling is painful, it's also a first step to improvement.

"When a school is labeled as an F, psychologically everybody feels beaten up,'' acknowledged Carmen Varela-Russo, the accountability chief for the 230,000-student Broward County schools. "But once they get past that stage and understand ... that working differently is the key, then things begin to change."

Commissioner Gallagher said he was unlikely to further alter the proposal before submitting it to the state school board.

"Everybody's for accountability, but they don't want you to go so accountable that you put a letter grade on the schools,'' he said. "We're putting the letters [on the schools] so that the general public and not just the real estate broker understands the quality of schools."

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 20

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