Florida’s Board of Education is meeting tomorrow to debate changing the state’s school grading system. The proposal has drawn criticism from educators and parents — particularly a proposal to include students with disabilities in the formula.
Here’s seven questions about what’s being proposed, how it could affect schools and why it matters.
1. Why is the school grading system changing?
For two reasons: Some of the changes have been long-planned as a way to toughen standards that have seen more schools earn As and Bs since they were first put into place. Advocates, such as Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, argue the grading system has forced schools to improve. Raising the standards will force schools to improve again.
The second reason is that Florida was granted a waiver from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. In order to receive the waiver, Florida agreed to change its school grading system so that more student subgroups — such as students with disabilities — are factored into the grade.
2. Why do the changes matter?
Because in the short-term, it means more schools will earn failing grades. A Florida Department of Education estimate last week showed 230 more schools would earn an ‘F’ grade (The standards this test run were based upon are likely to change before a final grade system is approved).
Failing schools can require significantly more resources from school districts, including additional focus on subjects such as reading, providing the school with more professional advice or shuffling personnel. All of these things will cost money for districts still facing tight budgets.
If schools earn failing grades for several years, they could be restructured, taken over or closed.
Long term the expectation is that Florida schools will get better. When you ask more of schools, Robinson said last week, they tend to meet those expectations. Robinson also said some of Florida’s current grade rules are unacceptable, and that schools can earn an ‘A’ despite serious performance shortcomings.
3. Will schools improve?
That’s the expectation. Robinson said raising the grading standards will ensure every student has a shot at a “world-class education.”
“We need an education system for Florida that is exceptional, not merely acceptable,” Robinson said.”
But critics argue the changes are punitive, particularly to schools that have made progress. They argue the changes have been pushed for political rather than educational reasons, supported by influential groups such as former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.
Here’s how one Miami alumni group views the changes, according to the Miami Herald:
William “D.C.” Clark, president of Miami Central Senior High’s alumni group, said it seems whenever lower-performing schools make the grade, the state Department of Education moves the target. The state’s simulations show Miami Central would get a red letter F under the new grading system.
“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the DOE and the Republicans in the state House and Senate don’t give a damn about the education of our kids,” he said. “They are using the mantra of elevating our children’s educational status as smoke screen to create more personal wealth for their cronies through creating new charter schools and at the same time create a scenario where those they deem underperformers are one step removed from the new prisons they are building which will one day become privatized.”
It’s also important to note that the state raised minimum requirements on the reading portion of the FCAT this year, so student scores were expected to dip this year.
4. What are the points of contention?
Robinson has already conceded ground on the biggest issue — how to include students with disabilities into the new grading system..
The first is including students with disabilities as a factor in school grades. Robinson said Friday he is scrapping a plan to grade students at schools that specialize in students with disabilities. Those schools are excluded from the current grade system.
But students with disabilities at other schools could be included. Robinson argues that it doesn’t make sense to include some students but not others. Parents of students with disabilities have argues their children
5. What else?
One proposed requirement would automatically fail schools where at least one in four students are not reading at grade level. Reading, particularly for young students, has long been a focus of Florida’ grading system.
There’s also debate about how to include students learning English into the school formula. The Jacksonville Public Education Fund argues students learning English should only be included after two years of instruction.
Another change would require a school’s lowest performing students to make more than one year’s progress, according to test results.
The Florida PTA opposes proposed reading rules and including students who have had less than two years of English instruction. The group also opposes tying students with disabilities to their home school.
School superintendents are also concerned about the change.
6. Are there other concerns?
Some advocates, such as the Orlando-based Fund Education Now, worry that the state wants more schools to fail. Why? Because one option for improving failing schools is to convert them to a publicly funded but privately managed charter school.
Fund Education Now notes that the grading system changes are coming just as the Florida Legislature is debating a bill that would allow a majority of parents at a failing school to vote to convert the school to a charter school without administration or school district approval.
Again, Robinson and others argue the long-term goal is a stronger school system graduating more students ready for college or the work force. Charter schools may be part of achieving that goal.
Charter schools will also be subject to the new rules, so it is possible that failing charter schools would be closed.
7. What will the board decide?
That’s not clear yet.
Board member John Padget has generally supported the proposed tougher grading system according to published quotes while board member Roberto Martinez has sounded a little more circumspect. A number of board members have close ties to Bush, who has generally supported stronger standards.