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Education

State board stops school grades from falling for 2 more years

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Published:   |   Updated: October 15, 2013 at 04:43 PM

TAMPA — The state Board of Education today voted to extend for two years the so-called “safety net” that prevents public school letter grades from dropping by more than one as the state phases in more rigorous teaching and testing standards.

The move prompted one board member, Kathleen Shanahan, to declare the state’s school grading formula “a farce.”

“Sorry, we’re now going to have four years of protection of not having (more than a) one-letter-grade drop,” said Shanahan, a former chief of staff to Gov. Jeb Bush and a Tampa area resident.

The safety net was applied in an emergency action for a second time this summer for elementary and middle school grades resulting from last year’s tests, the results of which were released in July. That meant, for example, that a school that actually went from a C grade to an F grade would fall no lower than a D on the Florida Department of Education’s statewide report card.

Board officials argued that the safety net should remain in place until the state fully implements the new Common Core standards and develops an accountability system based on new tests. Florida is among 45 states and the District of Columbia rolling out the Common Core standards, a more rigorous list of what students at various grade levels are expected to learn.

Today’s action means the safety net will stay in place for this school year, which will see the full phase-in of the new standards, and next school year, when the traditional Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test gives way to a new exam that has not yet been developed.

“In the 2015-16 school year, this board will create a new accountability system,” said education commissioner Pam Stewart. “This amendment is intended to take the accountability system through 2014-15, which would be the last year that the current accountability system would be utilized in the state of Florida.”

The measure passed with Shanahan and John Padget of Key West dissenting.

“When we started the first year with the safety net, it was intended to protect schools and local reputations against anomalies and changes that might have come about because of all these changes we made in the school grading system,” Padget said. “We all understand what a one-year safety net looks like. If we keep extending the safety net, it becomes a new rule, almost.”

School administrators were proved correct in their warnings that without state intervention this summer, grades would plummet with the introduction of the Common Core standards in Florida’s grades K-12 and with the tests that will be used to measure student performance against those standards.

In the most recent grading period, the 2012-2013 school year for elementary and middle schools, the safety net provision spared 33 Hillsborough County schools a free-fall. Eleven of them would have been added to the F category without it.

High school grades are expected to be released in December or January.

Hillsborough School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said extending the safety net was “probably the appropriate action.”

“As you go from one test to another test, you have to do a walkover in the scoring. ... And you can’t do that without having some understanding of how the system’s going to work,” she said. “And if you base all of the accountability on something that possibly is an issue, then you’ve undermined the entire accountability system.”

The letter grades can affect everything from school funding to a neighborhood’s real estate appeal. The grading concept was ushered in with Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan for Education in 1999.

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