TAMPA - Florida's school grades are supposed to reflect the quality of education and hold teachers accountable, but recent changes to how that report card is written have critics questioning whether the grades mean anything. Due to the high number of changes to the grading formula, state superintendents and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said school grades no longer reflect how well a school teaches students. That prompted the state Board of Education last week to enact a temporary "safety net" that would protect schools from dropping more than one letter grade this year. But what some teachers and superintendents see as a positive move to head off the destructive consequences of bad school grades, others see as a job-protecting whitewash. "It shouldn't be about the adults in the system,'' said Jaryn Emhof, director of communications for the Foundation for Florida's Future, in an email. "It should be about making sure our students are learning. What's the benefit in labeling an under-performing school with a grade that hides it from getting the attention it needs?"
This is the second year no school will drop more than one letter grade, a move that could reduce the number of F schools in Florida from 262 to 108. Last year, according to preliminary data from the Department of Education, the safety net helped 388 of 2,513 schools. Of those, 339 would have dropped an additional letter grade, 40 would have dropped two more grades and nine would have dropped three grades. Projected numbers for this year show that without the safety net, C schools would increase from 494 to 818, D schools from 212 to 390 and F schools from 40 to 262. The grades, largely based on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, not only brand a school as failing or successful, but also affect teacher pay, enrollment and potentially property values. Parents want to move closer to good schools, and teachers at A schools are eligible for bonuses. Likewise, failing schools are subject to state intervention plans, such as replacing administration at chronically low-performing schools. The proposal approved last week is a good "temporary stopgap," said Democratic state Rep. Carl Zimmerman, a teacher at Countryside High School in Clearwater. But the constant changes show the need for a more thorough assessment that takes students' socioeconomic backgrounds and "how much a teacher cares" into account, he said. "I'm glad the commissioner is doing something to try to minimize the destructive consequences of everything tied to school grades," Zimmerman said. "We absolutely need a way to measure what students are learning, but there's tremendous pressure on teachers when it comes to the grades, and too much of it is out of our control. This eases the worry a little bit, but it doesn't make the grade itself any more valid." The school grades for the 2012-2013 school year, which will be released by the end of the month, were expected to drop because of tougher grading on the writing portion of the FCAT and flat results in reading and math. Last year, the passing score for the writing test went from a 3 to a 3.5 out of 6. When scores plummeted, the passing score went back to a 3 and this year went back up to a 3.5. The shifting standards prompted Patricia Levesque, executive director of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, to publicly release a letter to the Florida Board of Education before the vote opposing the "grade inflation." She warned, "If we succumb to that, we politicize the grading formula, lose credibility and, worst of all, undermine a reform that is a fundamental element of Florida's education transformation." The foundation has been instrumental in promoting Florida's grading policy to other states, including Indiana, Texas and New York. Not everyone is behind that promotional effort. Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the nonprofit watchdog group the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said the whole concept of school grades is a recipe for failure. "Florida's school grades are at best arbitrary and this week we saw that they're subject to the whim of political appointees and can be altered for political reasons," Schaeffer said. "Grades mean what they say they mean, and relying on the board of education to spit out a single grade, as if that summarizes everything you need to know about a school, is absolute nonsense and distracts the public from addressing real educational problems." Letters don't inform parents about what their students are learning, Schaeffer said. A better option would be to publicize information like graduation rates, percentages of students who go to college, test results and student demographics separately instead of trying to calculate them into one letter grade, Schaeffer said. But Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, said the concept of issuing a school grade shouldn't be written off entirely. New York City has developed a successful A-to-F system that takes socioeconomic status and proficiency levels of students into account. Many states are looking to Florida to see how they can create similar grading systems, Pallas said, but that system has to be able to accurately show progress from one year to the next. As Florida transitions to the tougher, nationwide Common Core standards for the 2014-15 school year, the school grading system will have to be changed again to make sure it takes harder material into account. An A one year won't be the same as an A the next, Pallas said. "Everyone wants higher standards, but the question is how do you hold them accountable when putting higher standards in place?" Pallas said. Next academic year is the last time the FCAT will be used before it is replaced with a new standardized test through the Common Core, and Bennett said he may recommend the policy change be in place until then.