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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Florida's broken system of accountability


With the first day of a new school year a day away, the bitter taste of this past year's disastrous experiences with standardized test grades remains fresh. Florida's broken system of accountability in public education came into even sharper focus with recent revelations of miscalculations in school grades in 40 of the state's 67 school districts.

Those districts learned late last month that the state erred in calculating student learning gains, and more than 200 schools have now had their grade improved by one letter as a result.

In Manatee County, three elementary schools -- Freedom, Palma Sola and Rowlett -- moved up to A's. Two other schools -- H.S. Moody Elementary and Manatee School of the Arts and Sciences -- went from D's to C's.

The state's top education officials are in deep denial about the flaws in the system, with one suggesting the discovery of the school grading errors is proof the accountability system works.

That sort of spin boggles the mind. The state should have reviewed the scores for errors before releasing them to the public, not afterward.

Even before the school grades came out in early July, state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson sounded a warning that the marks would fall because of this year's rapid changes in the accountability system -- complete with a more difficult FCAT. (In late July, he abruptly resigned his post, citing family reasons.)

And fall they did. Almost 950 schools across the state dropped a grade level. Of those, almost 400 would have fallen another grade level had the state not quickly instituted a new rule in May that no school would drop by more than one letter grade.

That new rule came in the wake of the state's bungling of the writing portion of the FCAT. With the state failing to prepare students and teachers for the tougher test and higher scores required for passage, the predictable disaster occurred.

Scores plunged precipitously, with the number of fourth-graders scoring at grade level falling from 87 percent last year to only 27 percent this year.

In a panic over public anger, the state lowered the passing grade.

This is a comedy of errors on par with the hapless Keystone Kops rushing around and never reaching its goal.

The backlash against high-stakes comprehensive testing from parents, teachers and schools will continue to mount with this latest blunder.

The outrage culminated with a resolution adopted by more than 20 school boards -- including Manatee's -- urging, among other actions, the state to "contract with a qualified, independent entity to conduct a thorough and fully transparent independent review and evaluation of Florida's accountability system ..."

Nobody's arguing against accountability. Here, though, schools are not failing, the state is.

School letter grades are extremely important. Top schools reap financial rewards. Sanctions hit failing schools. Test scores weigh heavily on teacher evaluations and salaries. And student promotion depends on passage.

The state's mad dash into change to prepare schools for the 2014 implementation of common core standards has been ill conceived and executed.

The state should follow the school boards' resolution immediately. Florida's education officials must be held to higher standards, too, as they push schools and students in that same direction.

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