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Published in Print: November 28, 2001, as Florida Officials Set to Vote On Tougher School Ratings

Florida Officials Set to Vote On Tougher School Ratings

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Florida's system for rating its schools may get a major overhaul next month, and the proposed changes are drawing praise from educators while fueling more debate about the state's approach to education policy.

Under the changes being proposed to the state's A+ school accountability program, Florida's annual school-by-school letter grades would be based on longitudinal data—that is, looking at how students' test scores increase or decline as they proceed through school over several years. The current method compares test scores for new groups of students each year.

"That is a monumental leap in our ability to assess progress, and quite frankly, it will increase the accuracy of our accountability," said Bill Montford, the superintendent of the 34,000-student Leon County schools in Tallahassee.

The state's school accountability system is considered to be one of the nation's toughest, in part because students in the lowest-performing schools can get publicly financed vouchers to cover the costs of attending other public or private schools.

While that controversial policy would not be altered under the proposed plan, the changes would likely win more support from school administrators for the state's reform efforts.

Mr. Montford chaired a committee of superintendents and other education leaders that was asked by Gov. Jeb Bush to suggest changes in the accountability system. An elected county schools superintendent and a Democrat, Mr. Montford said he's locked horns with the Republican governor before, but stands firmly in agreement with the GOP administration on the proposed revision to the system.

"Even the harshest critics should look at the proposal with a sigh of relief. It is a greatly improved set of recommendations," Mr. Montford said. "It is a way for us to be able to much more accurately assess the degree of learning in the classroom by the individual student."

The changes are slated for a vote by Gov. Bush's Cabinet when it meets on Dec. 18. The Cabinet still serves as the state's board of education while a new, appointed education board works primarily on the state's shift to a K-20 education system, including a reworking of the state education agency.

Other changes are also part of the proposal. Reading scores would have to improve for a school's lowest-scoring 25 percent of students for the school to earn a higher letter grade. For a school to receive a rating of C or better, its lowest-scoring 25 percent of students would have to show improvement in reading.

In addition, the level of proficiency students must reach on writing tests would be be raised as part of the proposal.The modifications are aimed at stabilizing the school-by-school grades, which in some cases have leapt so radically in a single year that critics say the system is flawed and rates schools too broadly.

A new safety valve is also being proposed: Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist could make changes in the scale that helps determine each school's letter grade. Mr. Crist would fine- tune the ratings only if necessary, said JoAnn Carrin, the communications director for the Florida education department.

Deputy Commissioner Betty Coxe told school administrators in a memo dated Nov. 7 that her agency "appreciates the complexities of these matters and is working diligently to provide appropriate technical assistance."

Politics Over Learning?

The state's A+ accountability program has often been a sore spot for school groups in Florida, and the new round of proposed changes is no exception.

David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said the state's continued emphasis on grades and test scores is disturbing, and has more to do with politics than helping children.

"This thing is so political in Florida," he said. "It seems the ebb and flow of how students are doing has to do with the ebb and flow of politics."

The teachers' union—an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—supports the use of test data for diagnostic purposes, but not for judging schools so strictly, he said.

Mr. Clark said the group opposes Mr. Crist's proposal to be able to alter schools' grades if he deems necessary. The process could lend itself to political maneuvering, he said.

But the teachers' group does support the proposed change that emphasizes how students progress over time and would force schools to address underachieving students, even in high-rated schools.

"It recognizes their movement," Mr. Clark said.

Mr. Montford, the superintendent in Leon County, said he was impressed that Gov. Bush, Commissioner Crist, and Secretary of Education Jim Horne were willing to listen and make changes to the accountability program as needed.

"Those leaders have listened," Mr. Montford said. "That's not a political statement. It's a fact."

Vol. 21, Issue 13, Page 18

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