Local News

School grading changes proposed, but controversy continues

SEBRING - The Senate Education Committee approved a proposal Tuesday to streamline the state's school grading system, but superintendents oppose the plan while the state teachers union president has called for a moratorium on school grades.

Senate Bill 7060 calls for the Florida Department of Education to develop a district report card that includes the district's grade and measures the district's progress in closing the achievement gap between higher-performing and lower-performing student sub-groups.

Last month, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart suggested changes to simplify the school accountability grade calculations including: eliminating the penalty (a drop of one letter grade) if less than one-fourth of a school's students read below grade level. She also proposed cutting other measures from the grade calculation such as Advanced Placement performance, SAT scores and some graduation rate measures.

Highlands County Superintendent of Schools Wally Cox said Senate Bill 7060 is basically Stewart's plan.

"We superintendents, including myself, oppose it because we think there needs to be more of a three-year transition to the new accountability system," Cox said.

For instance, the state will have a new assessment next year based on the "Florida Standards," which is a new name for the Common Core Standards, he noted. This new assessment may be ready in June.

The superintendents don't believe district's should be held accountable in one year on something their teachers haven't seen, Cox said.

According to the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the school grading system has changed multiple times over the past few years, including 34 changes in 2011-12 alone. The culmination of these changes have had a significant impact on Florida's accountability system and many Floridians lack confidence in the assessments and school grades.

Occasionally in Highlands County parents will request a waiver to transfer their child to a school with a higher accountability grade.

Deputy Superintendent Rodney Hollinger said typically those transfer requests are not granted. The first consideration is student enrollment. If the requested school is overcrowded, the waiver will generally not be granted.

Hollinger noted at the start of this school year, under the state's Scholarship Opportunity Program, letters were sent to Memorial Elementary parents informing them that they could request a transfer for their child from the "F" graded school to Cracker Trail Elementary, which received an "A" grade for the 2012-13 school year. Parents of 21 children requested and were granted a transfer.

Florida Education Association (state teachers union) President Andy Ford called for a moratorium on school grading last month.

"Florida needs a pause in this madness," Ford said. "School grades are underpinned by high stakes testing. Even with the education commissioner's proposed grading simplification, grades will still be largely based on high stakes testing - a test we don't even have yet."

Ford said that FEA believes there should be an immediate moratorium on all school grades until verifiable, independent proof can be produced to demonstrate that Florida's A through F school grading system is valid.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.