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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Want better scores? Make the test easier

A change in the rules helped some South Florida high schools raise their state-issued grade. But the rules are getting tougher.


Last year, based on a lackluster performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, Dillard High got a D grade from the state. This year, without significant improvement on the exams, the Fort Lauderdale school scored a B.

How did that happen?

The state introduced a new formula this year for grading high schools that allowed schools to pump up their grade by steering more students into so-called ``accelerated courses.''

It wasn't crucial that students pass the courses, only that they enroll.

Dillard was hardly the only school to figure this out. Schools including Central, Hialeah High, North Miami Beach and Felix Varela in Miami-Dade also channeled more students into advanced courses -- and reaped benefits under the new formula. Statewide, participation in Advanced Placement classes rose 20 percent.

``Some of those massive [grade] increases may not have been because of actual learning gains,'' said state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican on the House Education Committee. ``That's something we need to dig into.''

Although they are pleased with the improvement in school grades overall, education officials are planning to tinker with the grading criteria. That will be discussed at Friday's state Board of Education meeting in Miami.

For more than a decade, Florida's high school grades were derived exclusively from student scores on the FCAT.

This year, FCAT scores counted for only half of a school's grade. Newly factored in: graduation rates, the percentage of kids earning a minimal score on the SATs and ACTs, and the number of students in accelerated courses such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and high school/college dual enrollment.

As with AP enrollment, the number of students taking dual enrollment courses rose 18 percent.

``What it tells me is that our high schools were pushing the envelope a little bit with kids that they thought might not have otherwise been AP ready,'' said state Education Commissioner Eric Smith.

At Dillard, participation in college-level classes spiked from 22 to 67 percent. Meanwhile, the percent of students passing those classes plunged from 45 to 17 percent.

Schools do get some credit for kids passing the courses, but the bulk of benefits comes from enrollment numbers.

South Plantation High followed the same path as Dillard. Enrollment in accelerated classes soared from 29 to 51 percent, while FCAT scores rose slightly.

The result: The school grade climbed from Dto A.

``This year, there was a focus . . . on identifying kids that had AP potential and giving those kids access to AP classes,'' South Plantation Principal David Basile said. ``It's highly unlikely we'll make those kinds of gains again.''

Brian Peterson, a Florida International University professor who edits The Miami Education Review, said kids often do ``rise to the occasion'' when placed in challenging courses.

But they need to have a foundation to succeed.

At long-struggling Miami Edison Senior High, 23 percent of the student body was enrolled in accelerated classes, helping Edison rise from an F to a C.

Just 9 percent of Edison sophomores earned passing scores on the reading FCATs.

Broward Superintendent Jim Notter said schools are not gaming the system, just following the rules set up by the state.

The present formula ``is a motivator for principals to provide a quality opportunity, especially for minority students, to take high-rigor classes,'' he said.

State Rep. Ana Rivas Logan, a former Miami-Dade School Board member, said schools that loaded kids into accelerated courses won't be able to maintain their high grades.

``They'll get the extra points this year, but next year it will be unsustainable,'' she said.

Next year, participation in accelerated classes will count less and passing the class will count more.

The state will also roll out a more rigorous set of FCATs this spring, Smith said.

``All those elements will make it much more difficult for schools,'' Smith said.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.

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1 comment:

  1. It's called grading on the curve,
    and that's where you will see the children who are left behind--
    drop outs
    out of luck
    hand outs
    out of work
    waiting for the labels
    waving at superman