Florida officials made just two major changes to the state formula which determines A-to-F school grades during the first six years of its use — adding a component to measure student test improvement from year-to-year and expanding the number of students included in the formula.
But since 2010 the state has made 16 changes to the formula, including adding new test results, increasing target test scores, factoring in high school graduation rates and accelerated coursework and adding scores for students with disabilities or those learning English.
School superintendents worry the formula has been loaded up like a Christmas tree and even supporters on the State Board of Education said they doubt the school grades.
“We’ve overcomplicated the system. I don’t think it’s a statistically relevant model,” board member Kathleen Shanahan said last month when discussing a “safety net” to ameliorate the effect of recent changes on school grades.
Board members say the state’s school grading system will change as Florida switches to new math, English and literacy education standards, fully adopted by 45 states. Those standards take effect in every classroom in 2014 and will require a new test and revisions to the school grading formula. Many of the recent school grading changes were to prepare for the new standards, known as Common Core, which are expected to be more difficult.
Experts who study school grading systems say the question of whether the formula is too complicated is less important than whether school grades are an accurate measurement of education priorities.
“What you have to do as a state is first ask ‘What matters most?’” said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust.
David Figlio is the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Figlio has studied school accountability systems and his children formerly attended Florida schools.
Figlio agrees with Hall that school grading systems are about setting priorities.
“If you exclude things from the grading system then there’s going to be the concern that these things are not viewed as important,” he said. “If you include them in the grading system there’s this concern that you have a Rube Goldberg contraption that’s trying to do so many things.”
Florida’s 19 million residents each have an opinion on the best way to measure schools, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to this,” Figlio said. “We don’t have Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the immutable word of God saying ‘This is how we grade schools.’ None of us know the very best way to do it.”
Florida’s formula contains most of the elements Hall likes to see included in school grades: The percentage of students meeting targets on state tests; how many students are improving on state tests from year to year; high school graduation rates; and the percentage of student taking accelerated coursework, such as Advanced Placement.
But Florida’s formula doesn’t include some elements which Hall prefers, such as attendance rates or breaking out test results by racial subgroups. She’d also like the state to include student survey data.
Figlio said Florida has one of the best school grading systems in the world. He prefers that the formula factors in the lowest-performing 25 percent of students rather than racial subgroups. Figlio would like the state to include human observations, which would rate schools on teacher morale, administrative efficiency and other qualitative factors.
Florida’s system has plenty of critics, including parents who say the grades don’t tell them what they’d like to know about their child’s school.
“The school grades are really meaningless to me because it’s more important the type of education my children get,” said Robin Godby, a Broward College instructor who has two children in middle school. “I think too much emphasis is put on school grades.”
The Miami Herald noted that schools with a higher percentage of low-income students are more likely to earn C, D or F grades. Columbia University Teacher’s College professor Aaron Pallas told the paper that’s because the state formula doesn’t give those schools enough credit for student improvement.
Hall also brought up one other common criticism of Florida’s system: Consistency is another hallmark of effective school grading systems.
“If I’m going to meet expectations I have to know what they are first,” Hall said. “You can’t be changing them every single year, because then I don’t know as a teacher, as a principal, what I’m supposed to be working towards.”