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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Editorials

School superintendents deserve a break

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School superintendents have good reason to ask the state for a break this year when annual school grades are released.

The state has instituted more than 30 changes into the school grading formula over the past two years, and the superintendents think the grades will plummet as a result. That will leave the false impression that the performance of students, teachers and principals is slipping when in reality the rules are what have changed.

For the grades to have any meaning, "you have to have a fair assessment," Hillsborough schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia says.

That's a valid point. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the state Board of Education need to adopt the suggestions made by Elia and other superintendents to mitigate the impending fallout. That includes the re-adoption of a rule instituted last year that prevents any one school from dropping more than a single grade when compared to last year's grade. A call to have an independent third party review the assessments should also be adopted.

If the superintendents appear overly sensitive, it's for good reason. A year ago, the state botched the school grading process, an embarrassing miscue followed by the resignation of former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

School grades have been around for nearly 15 years. They represent a report card for individual schools, with the best receiving A's and the worst receiving F's, as measured by FCAT scores and other factors. It's a simple tool for parents and communities to gauge the effectiveness of a school.

Changes to the grading process are nothing new. FCAT scores were added for grades 3-10 in 2001, and gains in testing scores from one year to the next became a factor in 2002. FCAT science scores were added in 2007, and in 2010 graduation rates, student performance and participation in accelerated coursework and college readiness were used to evaluate high schools.

But numerous changes over the past two years have left school districts scrambling to react. Scores for students with disabilities and English language learners were added to the formula, along with revisions to the calculations for testing gains and changes specific to middle schools. The bar has been raised for measuring writing proficiency, and geometry and biology performance are now included.

Elia says the superintendents are not trying to hide from accountability. They welcome the challenge of meeting high standards. Their concerns have to do with the number of changes being thrust upon them in such a short period.

They are also mindful that the adoption of Common Core standards is right around the corner, and that all of these changes will affect the confidence educators and the public have in the grades.

The grades do matter. Not only do they reflect on the competency of a school's staff, they can result in financial rewards for schools that show substantial improvement. Schools that get a D or F can be subject to state intervention. Realtors are all too aware of what the grades mean to a neighborhood as they sell homes to families looking for good schools.

Bennett has his priorities right. The state should raise the accountability bar. But the process needs to be carefully considered, or the integrity of the grading system risks being compromised.

Bennett is expected to make recommendations next week to the Board of Education. He should suggest the board listen to the superintendents, and limit the fallout from the confusion the state caused.

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