LARGO - Florida schools' annual report cards will be protected from dropping more than one letter grade this year, regardless of students' actual academic performance.
After a heated debate Tuesday, the Florida Board of Education approved a temporary, last-minute change to the school grading formula that will prevent a school from dropping by more then one letter grade from one year to the next. That will change once the state transitions to a new set of national school standards, known as the Common Core, in the 2014-2015 school year.
The Board of Education also agreed Tuesday that students in special education centers who have not attended traditional schools will no longer count toward their zoned schools' grades.
This year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is used to give schools an A-to-F rating, included harder reading, math and science standards to prepare students for the even-more-rigorous test they will face under Common Core. The result was a significant drop in students scoring on grade level.
Critics, though, worry that the "safety net" state education officials put in place to curtail falling school grades has too many holes and compromises the integrity of the school grading system. The Board of Education's 4-3 vote Tuesday, taken during an emergency telephone meeting to resolve the issue of school grades, reflected the uneasiness some educators have with skewing test scores.
"I don't understand when it became acceptable to manipulate the truth just because the truth has become uncomfortable," said Board of Education member Sally Bradshaw, who opposed the safety-net measure, along with John Padget and Kathleen Shanahan.
The proposal came at the request of school district superintendents who worried that multiple changes to standardized testing, performance expectations and grading calculations would make the A-to-F grades used to reward and punish schools and their teachers plummet across the state. Last year, the Board of Education adopted several changes to shield schools from slipping multiple letter grades, including increasing FCAT writing scores.
Hillsborough County schools chief MaryEllen Elia served on a task force of Florida superintendents, formed by state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, that staunchly advocated for the safety net. Bennett proposed the safety net measures on Friday.
"I believe that the decision that was made by the state board today will allow a smoother transition" to the new standards, she said. "A school that's dropping is still going to drop. A school that's moving up can still move up. But it gives us somewhat of a cushion."
Tuesday's decision could mean that more than 100 schools in Florida will avoid getting F grades this year. For 2011-12, 53 schools received F grades out of 3,186 rated, according to the Department of Education.
In the Hillsborough County school district, 26 earned D's for 2011-12, and five were F schools. In Pinellas County, 15 schools earned D's, and three were F schools. Six Pasco County schools earned D's, but there were no F schools.
Parents should have a clear understanding of how schools are really performing academically, despite the safety net, Bennett said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. The change means that even if a former A school performs like an F school, its grade would only drop to a B, which "could compromise credibility," Bennett said. However, he was not sure how that "truth in advertising" would be accomplished or if two different scores would be released for one school.
The safety-net strategy might not always seem appropriate to the lay person, said April Griffin, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board.
"I think it's good for us in the K-12 environment," she said. "It sends a bad message, though, to the general public that we can just change the standards from one year to the next. We're constantly trying to hit a moving target when it comes to the standards we're supposed to meet, and I don't think the general public understands that.
"When they see Tallahassee tweaking the grading system, it gives them a sense of 'We're lowering the standards,' but that's not the case."
During a workshop Tuesday, Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner questioned whether the school district should still focus on improving school grades.
Superintendent Michael Grego set a goal of having all schools score a letter grade of C or above from the state during the upcoming school year, but Lerner said the grading system is "unstable, complicated and changing" and suggested finding other means to gauge student achievement.
Pinellas schools will still be closely evaluated regardless of what grades they earn from the state to ensure they have the resources needed to produce successful students, Grego said. The Board of Education's decision will help the schools for now, Grego said. But it "doesn't change the work they need to do."
"There have been so many changes over the last few years that it's really hard to say what's causing what in terms of the tremendous drop," he said. "It's difficult to explain that our students are actually performing at a higher level in reading and math and writing, but our grades are dropping. Typically in a school setting, when you do better, your grades reflect that, and we're in a situation where it's the opposite. . The important thing is that we still identify the areas that need work."
Pasco County schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said he supports the Board of Education's decision.
"This is a good start, and assuring that we have stability as we transition to Common Core State Standards is essential to the credibility of Florida's School Accountability System," Browning said in a prepared statement.
"In the long run, it will be important to evaluate the calculation of school grades to accurately reflect all factors that contribute to student success."
School grades are still expected to be released at the end of the month.
Tribune reporters Jerome Stockfish, James Rosica and Ronnie Blair contributed to this report.