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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Florida changes school grading formula... again!

From the Miami Herald

by Kathleen McGrory

The state Board of Education on Tuesday approved plans to revamp the school grading formula - but made significant changes to the original proposal, which had unleashed a barrage of criticism from parents, teachers, superintendents and business leaders.

State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson backed off the so-called proficiency trigger, which would have schools get an automatic F if fewer than 25 percent of students were reading at grade level.

Under the revised plan, schools that don't hit the 25 percent mark would instead be docked by one letter grade. The trigger would not kick in until the start of the next school year.

The board approved one of the most hotly debated provisions of the new formula: a plan to include students with disabilities and those who are learning English in the grade calculation. In years past, the formula has only considered whether those students were making improvements, and not whether they were at grade level.

But there was a caveat: The board directed Robinson to convene a task force of educators, experts and parents to review that part of the plan - and make sure it was both necessary and sound.

"It's a move in the right direction," said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who had requested many of the changes. "In the process, we moved to a more reasonable policy that serves all students."

It was not clear how the formula as adopted on Tuesday would impact school grades.

Under the original proposal, hundreds of Florida schools would have dipped into the failing range, according to estimates from the state Department of Education. Miami-Dade would have seen the number of F schools jump to 50 from five. In Broward, the figure would have grown from five to 27.

The state Board of Education had to change the school grading formula - both to incorporate new state exams and to qualify for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The proposed changes raised the standards, placed a greater emphasis on reading and awarded extra points to students achieving at the highest levels.

But some of the early ideas met strong resistance from school superintendents, business leaders, parent groups and advocates for children with disabilities. Among their arguments: students with disabilities and those just learning English should not factor into the school grades formula the same way as typical children.

“Schools with 30, 40, 50 or 60 percent of students who are not native English speakers are going to be at a disadvantage in terms of this as a performance metric," Carvalho said at Tuesday's meeting. "That does not mean there is not quality instruction taking place in that school.”

Carvalho said he feared children with special needs would be perceived as "dragging down a school's grade."

"This is not in the best interest of anyone, and I don’t believe it represents the intent of the department or this board," he said.

But other speakers at Tuesday's meeting made the case for measuring all children equally.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, said she spoke on behalf of her 3-year-old son, Luke, who has special needs.

"Nothing in the current state accountability ever makes sure that Luke will learn how to read, because his learning how to read is not part of our school grading system," she said.

The foundation, created by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1994, supports the tougher grading formula and increased accountability measures.

In the end, board members said that fully incorporating students learning English and with disabilities was necessary for Florida to receive the No Child Left Behind waiver. But board members said they looked forward to hearing recommendations from the task force - and would reconsider the idea at next month's meeting in Miami.

Other provisions revisions to the grading formula had been as controversial.

Some parents were outraged after noticing that specialized schools for disabled children had received letter grades in simulations of the new grading system. Robinson later said the so-called ESE center schools would not be graded.

The Florida Association of Special Education Attorneys opposed the final outcome.

"If there is no accountability for schools that serve only disabled students ... schools will continue to have an incentive to place children in these more restrictive environments," the association said in a statement Tuesday. "We instead urge that there be incentives to serve these students effectively so they can learn in regular classrooms in their local schools, participate in extracurricular activities, and make friends with students who are not disabled."

The proficiency trigger had also raised concerns, particularly in communities where historically low-performing schools are making progress.

Miami Jackson and Miami Northwestern high schools, for example, had recently received an A and B grade respectively. Had the trigger been approved, both would have dropped to an F.

"We finally started to make big gains," said Cleveland Morley, the vice chairman of the Miami Northwestern Alumni Association Board, who traveled to Tallahassee for the meeting. "It wouldn't have been fair."

Morley was joined by two dozen representatives of Miami-Dade's inner-city high schools: Booker T. Washington, Carol City, Central, Edison, Norland and Northwestern.

"I feel better knowing that our showing up made a difference," Morley said. "But it isn't over yet."

Miami Herald staff writer Laura Isensee contributed to this report.

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