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Thursday, December 23, 2010

New grading formula responsible for schools gains

By Jac Wilder VerSteeg of the Palm Beach Post editorial board

The Post reported Sunday that a new grading formula, not better FCAT scores, caused the much-ballyhooed jump in grades the state assigns to each high school. Resist the conclusion that the new formula allows cheating. It's actually a slight improvement. The Post's findings, however, do show that under the old and the new formulas the grading system is useless.

The dubious track record for the high school grading formula also shows that educators are right to be skeptical of any formula the Legislature concocts to calculate merit pay for teachers. The old formula for grading high schools relied heavily on FCAT scores by ninth- and 10th-grade students in a few subjects. So those scores never reflected the entire high school's quality. Yet for a decade, those grades affected everything from teacher bonuses to principals' jobs to the real estate market as parents bought near A-rated schools.

FCAT scores are just half of the new formula. Other factors include the graduation rate and the percentage of students enrolled in advanced courses. Student scores on standardized tests in advanced courses are just a small part but will count for more as the formula is further revised. Overall, the formula measures more students in more courses, so it's a better gauge.

Still, it's wrong to believe that all students at A schools are getting a great education and all students at F schools are failing. The Post's analysis showed that only 33 percent of students at A-rated Lake Worth High had top reading FCAT scores, while 86 percent at A-rated Dreyfoos School of the Arts - which gets to choose its students - did. A school with relatively low FCAT scores could pump up its grade by enrolling more students in AP courses. Schools that started with low scores earned extra points for improvements, even if the students didn't get up to grade level.

It's bogus to assign an overall grade to an entire high school. Establishing a merit-pay formula can be just as difficult. Is the Dreyfoos teacher who takes students from a B-minus to an A better than the Lake Worth High teacher who takes students from a D-minus to a C? What about variables, the most important being parental involvement?

Despite the history of school grades, some state legislators are just as eager as they were last year - with Senate Bill 6 - to dictate a merit-pay formula to teachers. Gov. Crist vetoed that bill because it didn't have a formula taking into account all the variables that could make a teacher's job harder or easier.

As The Post analysis has shown, changing the formula can make a huge difference in grades and perception. Legislators are hellbent on imposing a merit-pay formula, just as they were hellbent on imposing a grading formula for entire schools. That attitude earns them an F. Striving for and establishing a valid merit-pay formula would earn them an A.

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