Putting Education Reform To The Test

New Standards Will Require Rewriting Expectations, But Not School Grading Formula

Experts say the switch to Common Core standards won't require a total overhaul of school grading systems. However, educators may struggle to set new expectations.

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Experts say the switch to Common Core standards won't require a total overhaul of school grading systems. However, educators may struggle to set new expectations.

Last month State Board of Education members turned on Florida’s school grading system.

The board was being asked to voted on two temporary changes which would soften the impact of several years of changes to the state formula which assign schools and districts an A-to-F rating. One change would prevent schools from dropping more than one letter grade this year, while another would change how

But the board was deeply divided. Some argued the reprieve was wise as schools adjusted to the new requirements. Other argued the state was sugarcoating bad news.

Most of the board questioned the complexity of the formula.

“I don’t think it’s a statistically relevant model,” board member Kathleen Shanahan told her colleagues.

They said Florida’s move to new education standards fully adopted by 45 states, known as Common Core, would force a rewrite of the formula.

But what will the switch to Common Core mean for Florida’s school grading system? Experts say the problems for the grading system are more political than statistical. That’s because the standards and accompanying testing will be more difficult, so fewer students — and schools — will meet expectations.

Schools which earned an A grade one year might earn a C grade, or worse, the next. The schools didn’t get worse, but the state is asking more of students.

“States have to come to grips with this issue that schools we used to say were really good now aren’t so good,” said David Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Figlio has studied school accountability systems and his children formerly attended Florida schools.

But Figlio said there’s nothing about Common Core that invalidates the current system of grading schools.

For elementary and middle schools, grades are mostly based on the percentage of students meeting state target scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and whether student scores are improving from one year to the next. The high school formula also adds factors such as graduation rates and the percentage of students taking accelerated coursework, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes.

Scores from whatever test Florida chooses to (mostly) replace the FCAT can be plugged into the new formula, Figlio said.

The more difficult issue is where to set expectations — and that’s a political discussion.

“We’re going to need to recalibrate what our expectations are,” said Daria Hall, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. “New accountability systems are going to have to start with a new baseline of where students are and then set ambitious, but achievable expectations.”

Hall said states will have a public relations challenge helping parents understand the new standards and expected lower school grades. The new standards are more honest with students, parents and educators about what students should be able to do when they graduate high school.

The switch to Common Core, Figlio said, should not be a pretense to scrap accountability systems such as Florida’s A-to-F grading.

“It’s amazing how many really smart people seem to think that an accountability system makes no sense, or would have to be dramatically overhauled in spirit if there was a move to a different set of standards,” Figlio said. “I reject that idea.”


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