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Florida Unveils New Grades for School Districts

Florida school districts are the subject of a new state grading system—though not everyone is convinced the rankings are a good idea.

The grades, unveiled today, are based on a formula rooted in districts' various scores on Florida's statewide test, the FCAT.

The state's education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, said Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, created the system so that it would be easier for parents, students, and taxpayers to compare performances across districts.

One of the main goals "is to start a conversation about how we can encourage districts to move in different directions," Robinson said in a video message explaining the grades, and to help the public understand how they can "support our public school system, and to support reform and innovation."

Robinson, perhaps acknowledging criticism of the grading metrics, said he was aware the system does not account for the very different socioeconomic challenges facing Florida's districts, which could affect their scores. But he said the grades would nonetheless provide a valuable tool in helping the public track districts' improvement, or lack or it, over time.

The St. John's County school district, based in St. Augustine, had the highest point total and garnered an A, followed by Santa Rosa, Martin, and Sarasota systems, which all pulled the same grade.

The Madison County schools got the only D in 2011, and the Jefferson, Hamilton, and DeSoto county schools were the next-lowest, in ascending order, receiving Cs. On the whole, the system did not produce particularly tough grades: 53 of Florida's 67 districts received an A or a B.

Florida was a pioneer in establishing individual grades for schools based on academic performance—a controversial step taken under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which has since served as a model for some other states.

The Florida Education Association, a union and a frequent critic of the state's use of testing, took a dim view of the new district grades. Spokesman Mark Pudlow said in an e-mail that they reflected "how the testing culture has perverted the idea of education in Florida. Standardized testing should be used for diagnostic purposes, to help students and teachers, but it has turned into a blunt instrument that is used to reward and punish teachers and schools and districts."

[UPDATED (4:54): One local superintendent of a district that received a C grade noted that it was based on "one measure" and did not mesh with other signs of high performance in her school system.

"[W] are trending upward and seeing growth in student performance," said Sherrie Nickell, superintendent of the Polk County schools, in a statement. "The takeaway message from this ranking is that we live in a competitive, market-driven society. Regardless of all of the differences among the districts, Polk is held to the same standard as other districts in the state....The path to take us where we want to be will require tremendous support from all, but our students deserve nothing less than our best."]

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