Florida released school grades for elementary and middle schools today, and as expected, grades were down across the board.
(High school grades include more factors and will be released later.)
Here’s five questions explaining the school grades, why the report card system changed and which districts have some good news to report.
1. So how bad was it?
The percentage of elementary and middle schools earning an ‘A’ grade declined to 43 percent. Last year nearly 60 percent of state schools earned an ‘A’ grade.
Some school districts no longer have any ‘A’ schools.
The number of schools earning lower grades was up in every category. The number of ‘D’ schools doubled and there were 14 more ‘F’ schools this year.
State officials emphasized much of the decline is due to tougher standards and not because schools are performing worse than in the past.
2. Why did the grading system change?
That depends on who you ask.
Elementary and middle school grades are based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores and how much students are improving.
State Department of Education officials say Florida’s testing and school grading systems needed to get tougher so students were learning more and to prepare for the new national Common Core standards.
Those Common Core standards will replace the FCAT in the 2014-2015 school year, bringing new tests to replace the FCAT.
State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson argues that schools and students improve when more is asked of them. Though school grades have dropped when the state raised standards in the past, Robinson said,within a few years the grades had risen above where they were previously.
Critics argue changing the grading system moves the goalposts and is a way to make schools appear as if they are not performing well. They also argue testing and how the results are used have become politicized.
3. How did the grading system change?
There were three big changes to the system.
First, the state made some tests more difficult Most notable was the FCAT writing exam.
Students were penalized for their use of improper grammar, punctuation and misspellings. Students were also graded on the logic of their arguments and whether the arguments were supported by details, facts and other evidence.
The state added a second scorer to the exam, which allowed for half-point scores.
The state also made FCAT exams more difficult to pass, raising the minimum scores required for each scoring tier.
This means students had to do better on the test from one year to the next just to maintain the same overall score.
The final change was related to Florida’s waiver from portions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
In order to be granted the exemptions, the state agreed to test students with disabilities and those learning English and include their scores in the school report card. School leaders believed those students find the exam more challenging and would score lower on the FCAT.
4. These grades could have been worse?
Concerned that grades at some schools could plunge due to tougher tests and higher required scores, the Florida Board of Education decided no school could drop by more than a single letter grade.
Without that “circuit breaker,” 388 schools would have even lower grades. The bulk of those would have seen their grades drop by only an additional letter grade, according to state Department of Education data.
But 40 schools would have seen their grade drop by an additional two letter grades. And nine schools would have seen their scores drop by three additional letter grades –the equivalent of going from an ‘A’ to an ‘F.’
Those grades will drop next year, unless as Robinson predicts, schools adjust and raise their performance.
5. So who did well?
Duval County deserves to be singled out. It was the only school district which increased its ‘A’ schools while decreasing its ‘F’ schools.
Collier, Franklin, Madison and Sarasota County schools also increased the percentage of schools earning an ‘A’ grade.