Florida Cabinet Revises School Accountability System

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Yielding to complaints that Florida's accountability system awards a disproportionate amount of money to schools that need it least, state officials recently approved changes that would send more aid to schools that do poorly on state tests but demonstrate improvement.

Florida provided financial awards this past fall of up to $100 per student to schools that received an A on the state's grading scale—which is based largely on state test scores—or showed "significant improvement." Under the new provisions, schools that improve by one letter grade from one year to the next, as well as those earning A's, are eligible for the rewards. In addition, F- graded schools that fail to improve a whole letter grade, but still show significant improvement, will qualify to receive the extra money.

In a 4-2 vote last month, the Florida Cabinet—acting as the state board of education—also made other changes to the accountability system, which was approved by the legislature last spring. The Cabinet expanded the number of grades tested and made attendance, dropout, and discipline rates bigger factors in schools' grade assignments.

The changes were made to acknowledge the efforts of schools that receive poor marks but still show improvement, officials said.

But the revisions failed to satisfy some education advocates, who contend that the accountability system is inherently unjust and demoralizing to schools serving high-poverty areas. As long as the grading system fails to recognize that such schools face greater challenges than other schools, they argue, it will be flawed.

"Yes, all students can learn," said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "But they start from different starting points, and [state officials] have failed to take that into consideration."

According to an analysis of state education department data conducted by Robert McEachern and L. Lamar White, two elementary school principals in Niceville, Fla., 80 percent of the schools that earned A's or B's under the new state grading system reported that their percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches was below the state average of 43 percent. Conversely, 96 percent of the schools earning D's and F's had an above-average proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches—a common measure of poverty.

One Standard

Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher defends the current system, saying that the state administration wants to maintain a uniform standard.

"We recognize that schools in low-income areas face challenges," said Mr. Gallagher, a Republican. "But we're not going to have two standards—one for schools that face a lot of challenges, and one for schools that don't."

Gov. Jeb Bush hopes to double the awards budget, from $30 million this school year to $60 million next year , Mr. Gallagher said.

Jim May, the superintendent of the 46,000-student Escambia County school district, said the awards money would be better spent on higher salaries for teachers throughout the state. The idea that teachers would be motivated by the awards system to do a better job in the classroom is "a slap in most professionals' faces," Mr. May said.

In the Dec. 14 meeting, Cabinet members also approved a measure that would reduce a school's letter grade by one level if it reports absenteeism, dropout, or suspension rates that are significantly above the state average. Some observers criticized the inclusion of suspension rates as a factor, saying it could discourage schools from removing students who pose a threat to others.

In another provision, Cabinet members addressed concerns that high student-mobility rates could distort the grades awarded some schools. The new provision requires that a student be in the same school from October through at least the following February for his or her state test scores to count toward the school's grade for that academic year.

David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, praised that decision even as he criticized the state board for not making further adjustments for schools serving low-income areas.

"There's starting to be a recognition that mobility is important," the official of the National Education Association affiliate said. "You can't hold a teacher and school accountable if the student hasn't been taught by a school and teacher for a reasonable amount of time."

Under the new rules, students in grades 3-10 will be tested starting next year. Currently, state tests are administered only to 4th, 5th, 8th, and 10th graders.

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Page 19

Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Florida Cabinet Revises School Accountability System
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