CLEARWATER - The significant drop in Florida's elementary, middle and K-8 school grades, released last month, shocked many education leaders, especially considering the state Board of Education had put in place a "safety net" preventing schools from dropping more than a letter grade.
As bad as they were, the grades would have been even worse had special education students' test scores been factored into the equation, as they were for the first time during the 2011-2012 school year.
Exceptional student education centers, schools for special needs students, previously had the option of either having their students' standardized test scores compiled into an A to F school grade or sending them to the zoned schools students would have attended to be factored into those schools' grades, even if the students had never been enrolled in those schools. Most special education centers chose to ship their students' scores to other schools, instead receiving a blanket rating of "declining," "maintaining" or "improving" from the state as they had in years past. An outcry from state superintendents made the state rethink that policy, though.
Days before the 2012-2013 school grades were announced, the Florida Board of Education passed another safety net rule preventing an ESE student's test scores from being factored into their "home" school's grade if he had never actually attended that school or scored in the lowest tier on the Florida Alternative Assessment, the statewide standardized test for students with cognitive disabilities. The safety net provision will carry over to the upcoming academic year until the state transitions to a new grading system under the nationwide Common Core standards.
In Pinellas County, where all the special education centers declined to receive letter grades, the schools' ratings indicate that students' test scores would have driven their zoned schools' grades down even further. This year, there were eight F schools, 14 D schools and 22 C schools in Pinellas County; high school grades will be released later this year.
Of the county's ESE Centers, Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater went from a "declining" level to "maintaining," while the Paul B. Stephens School in Clearwater and Nina Harris School in Pinellas Park went from "improving" to "declining" . The only school to get an improved rating was Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport. However, the school will was closed to save the school district about $1.8 million, and the students will be distributed to other special education centers.
Most Hillsborough County schools chose to receive traditional grades this year. Though their final scores for the 2012-2013 school year are still being calculated by the state, Caminiti Exceptional Center in Tampa, LaVoy Exceptional Center in Tampa, Lopez Exceptional Student Center in Seffner and Willis Peters Exceptional Student Center in Dover all received F's for the 2011-2012 school year.
Carver Exceptional Center in Tampa was rated as declining for the 2012-2013 school year, and Dorothy Thomas Center in Tampa went from improving to maintaining.
It is imperative that a more sensible accountability system be put in place for the centers as soon as possible, Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said.
"Unfortunately, I think our grading system has lost a lot of credibility, and it makes it nearly impossible to make sure those students are making progress, especially since these are the students that arguably need the most accountability," Cook said. "It's not enough to say 'They're not dropping,' or 'We're doing better than someone else.' We need to come up with a way to make sure these students are making major improvements."
At Paul B. Stephens, the percentage of students making improvements in reading dropped from 54 percent to 45 percent, while the number of students making gains in math dropped from 51 percent to 41 percent. Nina Harris' reading gains dropped from 59 percent to 40 percent, and math gains went from 49 to 46 percent. Hamilton Disston saw reading gains increase from 33 percent to 49 percent and math gains went from 36 percent to 44 percent. Calvin Hunsinger saw the number of students making reading gains increase from 33 to 51 percent, and math gains went from 47 to 50 percent.
In Hillsborough County, students at Carver Exceptional Center making reading gains went from 45 percent in 2011-2012 to 39 percent in 2012-2013, though math gains went from 30 percent to 75 percent. At Dorothy Thomas, students making reading gains increased from 42 percent to 54 percent, while math declined from 43 percent to 39 percent.
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego said student performance always varies drastically in smaller school settings - each of the ESE centers enrolls fewer than 200 students.
Nevertheless, there needs to be a "concrete way to hold students accountable," School Board member Rene Flowers said.
Unlike with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, ESE students don't need to achieve a specific score on the Florida Alternate Assessment before they can graduate with a special diploma; and without a school grade, the ESE centers aren't subject to the same strict "turnaround" process the state enacts on failing schools, such as requiring detailed plans to bring up school grades and mandated firings.
However, the whole school grading system is hard to apply to students who often have severe cognitive, emotional and physical disabilities to overcome, said Karen Higgins, president and CEO of PARC, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children and adults with mental disabilities. PARC offers supplemental services to ESE centers in the county.
The best way to gauge student success is to see how prepared they are to enter the workforce or adulthood after leaving the school system, Higgins said. Students can stay in Pinellas County schools until they're 21, and Higgins said she believes they are now learning more than even last year or the year before, despite stagnant test performance.
"In these schools teachers are working one-on-one with kids, how can you say a school is failing when the students they teach have such different needs and backgrounds?" Higgins said. "These are students that may have difficulties breathing, that have difficulties moving around or other difficulties. These schools don't need to worry about a school grade because it doesn't really apply to their individualized learning, and now we're seeing more students then ever come out of school and get jobs and become successful adults."