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Florida board to prevent steep drop in school grades


Published:   |   Updated: July 16, 2013 at 03:34 PM

TALLAHASSEE - The annual A to F grades handed out to the state's public schools are undergoing a last-minute change.

A state board narrowly voted Tuesday to tweak the formula in such a way that more than 150 schools will likely avoid getting an F grade when the grades are announced later this month.

The decision was made despite the protest of some officials who said the move would confuse parents and mask the true performance of many schools.

"I don't understand when it became acceptable to disguise and manipulate the truth simply because the truth is uncomfortable," said Sally Bradshaw, a member of the State Board of Education. She voted against the proposal.

Each year the state hands out A to F grades that are used to reward top schools and sanction those that get failing marks. The system has been in place for more than a decade and was the centerpiece of changes first put in place under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett late last week asked the board to keep in place a "temporary" rule first adopted last year that would limit a school grade from dropping more than one letter at a time.

Bennett was responding to worries from school superintendents that a long line of recent changes to the grading system would create a large drop in the grades. The grades are based primarily on student performance on a series of high-stakes tests, but also other factors such as learning gains made by students.

An analysis prepared by the Department of Education showed that without the change the number of F-rated schools would jump from 40 statewide to 262 schools. The "safety net" proposed by Bennett would cap that number at 108 schools.

The board voted 4-3 in favor of Bennett's recommendation. But before they took the vote members had a lengthy conversation about the relevance of the grading system.

Board chairman Gary Chartrand questioned whether the grading system - which is used by everyone from parents to real-estate agents to keep tabs on school quality - remained statistically valid.

"I don't think the truth is being revealed in the current grading system," Chartrand said.

Another board member asked whether the state could halt the grading process this year even though it's required under state law.

Bennett, who was the top schools official in Indiana before coming to the state, defended his proposal as a bridge to the common core standards that are expected to take effect in the 2014-15 school year.

But during a call with reporters prior to the board meeting Bennett said the state would come up with a way to explain to parents what this year's grade meant. He said his recommendation was not meant to "buffer" the grades.

The decision to tweak the formula drew praise, however, from school superintendents.

Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho pointed out that the state had changed passing scores on some of the tests used for school grades while at the same time making the high-test stakes more difficult.

"It is the right approach when there are too many unknowns," Carvalho said.

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