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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Florida schools may extend grade safety net

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CLEARWATER — The controversial “safety net” rule that has saved hundreds of Florida schools from dropping more than one letter grade in a year since 2012 could stick around for 2014, Florida’s interim education commissioner, Pam Stewart, said at a statewide education summit here Tuesday.

This state Department of Education adopted the temporary rule in 2012 after the education leaders imposed tougher grading standards for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which makes up a bulk of a school’s grade. The state Board of Education narrowly voted to keep it intact for this year but will vote again in October on whether to keep it in place for grades handed out next summer.

Each year, the state hands out letter grades used to reward schools that remain an A or improve a letter grade with school recognition funds and sanction those that get failing marks.

This summer, the provision kept more than 150 schools from getting an “F” grade, but about 53 percent of elementary, middle and K-8 schools across Florida regressed. In Pinellas County, which was rated a C school district for the second year in a row, the percentage was essentially the same, with about 52 percent of schools receiving lower grades than last year.

Even with the safety net in place, in Pinellas County the number of elementary, middle and K-8 schools receiving an A ranking dropped by nearly half, from 42 in 2012 to 23 this year, while the number of F schools increased from three to eight.

The school district saw its number of B schools go from 18 to 25, C schools go from 16 to 22 and D schools go from 14 to 13. Without the safety net, Pinellas County would have had seven more F schools; 11 B schools and two C schools also had their grades bolstered.

“I’m not in favor of school grades at all,” said Linda Lerner, Pinellas County School Board member. “I think we can look at how students are doing, student by student, and do things in schools that we need to do without school grades. But having said that, I would favor a safety net if we’re going to continue having grades that I consider to be not good for kids and not good for schools.”

Florida went from 40 F schools last year to 107 this year. Without the safety net, the state would have had 261 F schools. However, because low performing schools are required to make immediate changes, there is a case to be made for keeping Florida’s normal grading policies.

“School grades have probably done more than anything else in the past several decades to put more attention on the needs of high poverty kids, and if you look at the data we’ve had more progress with high poverty kids than any other time in several decades,” said Doug Tuthill, former president of the Pinellas County teachers union and president of Step Up For Students, which provides scholarships for low-income students, during Tuesday’S education summit. “That is the contradiction that we’re grappling with, because we would like a system that’s fair and doesn’t stigmatize people.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

adawson@tampatrib.com

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